I have observed different responses to COVID-19 in my work with younger clients who are on the autistic spectrum. Some have enjoyed being in the sanctuary of their own homes, away from the pressure and stress of everyday life, others felt like this initially but are now starting to see their anxiety levels rise again, as they contemplate what it will be like to return to school and the big wide world again. Then there are those clients who have experienced an increase in anxiety from the day that lockdown began and it is that group that I wish to focus on in this blog post.
Children with autism often have a higher baseline of anxiety than their neurotypical peers and often absorb anxiety from those around them. Even if anxiety levels within the family are low they may be picking up on the messages being communicated and the pain expressed by the outside world. They are also likely to interpret the language used by the media literally, so a 'killer virus' is how they are likely to perceive Covid-19, regardless of the threat it poses to them.
We know that some of the drivers of anxiety in children with autism are fear and uncertainty and given the current situation that we all find ourselves in, it will come as no surprise that you may see an increase in your child's autistic behaviours, given these are often coping mechanisms for anxiety. Some of the things your child might do more of includes:
more sensitive to sensory stimulations such as noise, light, textures of clothes
more time spent on their own away from the family
more time engrossed in their special interests
heightened anxiety with regards to germs and cleanliness
heightened anxiety when not in the same room as you
unable to sleep in their own bed at night
an increase in 'rituals' around certain activities such as bedtime routines or brushing teeth
If you do see an increase in some of your child's autistic behaviours please do not worry. There are lots of things you can do to support them to help bring down their anxiety levels and reduce their feelings of uncertainty.
1. Create a new timetable for lockdown. Keep it simple and colourful and include eating times and free time, in addition to school work and exercise. An example is attached at the bottom of the blog.
2. Encourage activities that calm the nervous system such as yoga and meditation of exercises that help to burn off excess adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones). We are loving Just Dance and Jo Wicks in our house at the moment!
3. Validate your child's feelings by labelling what you observe; " I can see that you are upset and worried right now...". Explaining to your child how anxiety works is also important; the key point being that anxiety does not last forever. There will be a peak and then this feeling will start to subside over time. Talk to your child about what you might do together when their anxiety levels have come down.
4. When your child is feeling anxious encourage them to engage with something that will stop them focusing on their anxiety. This may be a puzzle or game, an activity in the garden, time with their pet or time on their computer. 'Thought blockers' are an essential tool in anxiety management.
5. Talk to your child about the facts around Covid-19; who is at risk and why. Explore together what they and you as a family are able to control and influence during this time of uncertainty. What steps can you take to minimise the risk of infection? There are some excellent social stories on Covid-19 and Carol Gray does a lot of work in this area. I have attached a good Coronavirus story by Dr Siobhan Timmins on the Helpful Resources page on my website.
Remember that it is completely normal for anyone of us to feel anxious during this time and reflecting that back to children can also help to normalise difficult feelings, as can positive modeling in terms of what to do when we feel like that. Praise and encouragement is essential and don't forget if we as parents can focus on finding ways to feel calm and manage our own anxiety, then this will also have a positive impact on our children.
An example of a visual timetable: