Coronavirus crisis:

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Tips for parents and families with a child with autism spectrum disorder

This year is not similar to the previous years. Floods, earthquakes, air pollution and coronavirus epidemic indicate that we have to face many unexpected events. Each of the said incidents can create stressful conditions for healthy people, and people respond differently depending on their age and specific characteristics. Children with special needs, such as autism spectrum disorder, need more attention. In addition to providing special training for these children, we have to prepare them for crisis situations and make the necessary arrangements.

Corona, the difficult event of 2020

Corona is an infectious disease caused by a virus. Infection means that the disease is caused by a virus that can spread from person to person rapidly. Unfortunately, we cannot diagnose the disease until one has symptoms. Therefore, during the time that individuals are infected by the virus until they show symptoms, they can infect many people. That is why we have to take protective measures against the virus to prevent coronavirus disease. The important protective measures, which have been frequently mentioned by the media, include hand-washing, disinfecting equipment, use of masks, and etc. The factors that plays a very important role in breaking the cycle of disease and reducing its prevalence include reducing interaction with others, not going to public places and staying at home. By staying at home, virus-cycle and its transmission will slow and Covid-19 will stop spreading.

Staying indoors may be fun initially, but when this period last for a long time, it can become a source of stress and discomfort. So you have to think about measures to reduce stress and make life easier for your child and family.


What Happens to a child with autism?

Children with autism spectrum disorder may respond differently as they have different manifestations. One of the characteristics of these children, for example, is inclination for being alone and reaction to change. As a result, their responses may even be positive in these circumstances, because they can spend time on implementing their interesting actions. Autistic children don’t need to commute to different school classes and rehabilitation classes; so they interact with fewer people, which reduces their stress and they will be more relaxed than other times.

But there are also children who are frustrated by the unexpected changes in their daily routines and staying at home; their stereotypical behaviors will be intensified, they brabble, commit self-harm or damage other to the extent that it is difficult to keep them at home. In the past, it was possible for the family to calm their child down by going out and around. But this is not possible at the moment.

Considering the need to continue rehabilitation treatments and to prevent behavioral retrogression, children may not have any improvement in their behavior during the time the family has to stay indoors, or sometimes they don’t use or forget the learned skills, which cause greater concern for the family.

What happens to the family?

The conditions of today’s society may be similar to the situations that families with autistic children have been experiencing for many years: sitting at home and disconnecting from the world around them…

For families who have been involved in treatment classes for their children, this isolation may be a form of compulsory rest. They can spend more time at home and with other family members and enjoy time away from traffic and crowded classes. They can also have more time to play and interact with their children and help them stabilize their previous learning.

But on the other hand, the family may be subject to numerous stresses. Anxiety caused by epidemic, anxiety caused by disruption of child’s rehabilitating and educational activities, anxiety of financial problems caused by market failure, and anxiety caused by deterioration of child behaviors …

For many parents, it is an opportunity to reduce stress at home when the child is involved in rehabilitation activities and out-of-home classes. Especially in these places parents can talk to and interact with other parents who have similar experiences. In fact, parents see other parents in these classes who will become their family and act as a support group.

By spread of the coronavirus, the only way to contact with the outside world and to release the emotions is blocked which can cause a variety of reactions in the family. Parents may not have lonely hours and feel overwhelmed by stress. They must be at home all the time and cannot use the help of others. Sometimes the stress can be so severe that parents lose their temper and resort to aggressive behavior against the children or harm the children physically.

What happens to siblings?

No one at home can be immune from the stresses of the family environment. The healthy siblings of autistic children also get involved in stressful events. Closing of schools and being with a sibling with autism spectrum may not be too worrying. Especially if a child with autism is calm and accompanies his or her sibling in the game.

But an autistic child with severe behavioral problems will cause great stress for other family members and siblings. Especially in families where parents have to seek help from other sisters and brothers to take care of and control their autistic child.

What happens to the neighbors?

If a child stays at home for a long period, he will be ill-tempered, restless or shout. In this situations, the neighbors may complain about the problems. The pressures caused by the neighbors affect the parent’s tolerance in stressful situations.

Tips for parents

Since it is difficult to predict the situation in the future and we do not know how long these conditions will continue, we must be prepared for long-term management of these conditions.

1) Make sure you communicate with the child properly and explain the necessary actions for protection against corona virus to children at their level of understanding: speak about corona virus by small stories, pictures and games and tell the child how to protect himself/herself against the disease.

2) Prioritize the needs. Rehabilitation is important but not a top priority, so don’t worry about closing of rehabilitation centers and slowing of rehabilitation process. The safety of the child and the whole family is more important now.

3) Keep in touch with child therapists: you may be able to continue treatments with your child through simple training.

4) Don’t put too much pressure on the child for continuous training: don’t try new things such as massage before consulting with therapists because it can disrupt the child and aggravate the problems.

5) Don’t pick on the child if his behaviors don’t hurt himself or others: if he shows stereotypical behaviors such as hand-movements, jumping p and down or gestures that are not dangerous, don’t try to disrupt him since he may get defensive. If he shows undesirable clichés, contact his doctor or therapist. You may need to try specific medication or behavioral therapy.

6) Most of these children enjoy quiet places, so prepare part of the home as his private room, and empty the room of any harmful thing. Cover the power sockets with protector and ask the child to go to the room when he/she is nervous and come out when he/she calms down. If you have a backyard, prepare it for the child to play.

7) Play simple games with your child – games which are appropriate for his/her level of competence, understanding and age: engage in productive and appropriate interactions with children. Ask him/her to do something with you. For example, ask him/her to cooperate with you in making cakes, washing tools, arranging house, sewing masks or doll clothes and playing motor games.

8) Teach the child about hygiene tips: use pictorial guide for hand-washing and using napkins when coughing and sneezing. Remember that any training requires patience. Continue your training until you are sure that child has learned the tip and implements it correctly.

9) Take care of your health: make sure you spend time relaxing, exercising, reading a book or listening to music. If you are happy and hopeful, children will also be happy. If you are stressed, angry, and upset, the child will be influenced by your mood.

10) It is important for parents and family members to work together. Try to divide the tasks. Once a parent is responsible for taking care of the child, another parent can rest or do his/her own work, and vice versa.

11) Get in touch with parents of children with autism spectrum disorder via social media channels: in these channels you can talk to similar people and benefit from their experiences. Design fun online programs (such as painting and making handicrafts by kids and parents), and try new things.

12) Pay attention to other children at home: let them talk to you about their feelings. Understand their emotions and situation. Play group games. Spend time on talking, playing games, storytelling or doing joint things. Monitor their classroom activities. If an autistic child has severe harmful behaviors that may physically or psychologically harm his/her sibling, keep him/her away from autistic child’s environment. If possible, and if your child wishes, you can take him/her to house of the relatives who you trust.

13) Inform your neighbors of your problem: tell your neighbors about your child’s problems. If they understand the problem, they can tolerate the child’s behaviors more easily. They may even help you take care of the child.

Dr. Katayoon Razjouyan

Specialty in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences