Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech and nonverbal communication. Autism is one kind of spectrum disorder, where people with autism would deal with recognizable behavior of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged.
Children with autism spectrum disorder are often restricted, rigid and even obsessive in their behavior, activities and interests. Such children may have difficulty regulating their emotions or expressing them appropriately in nonroutine conditions, particularly the current time of quarantine or social distancing.
Since the coronavirus has been spreading around the world, schools everywhere have shut down for weeks at a time, some until the next school year. COVID-19 is forcing many families into voluntary self-quarantine. For children with autism, this creates a drastic change from their daily routine, and parents are also left wondering what to do when their autistic child must enter quarantine.
I am the mother of a 17-year-old girl with autism. From Monday to Friday, her daily routine normally comprises many activities and tasks in school, which are really helpful to regulate her emotions and thoughts. During weekends, we sometimes stroll around the mall, supermarket or just eat out. Such routine helps to reduce emotional disturbances.
With school closures, children with autism are still preoccupied with their routines in their minds, but clearly wonder what is happening outside. They cannot internalize the temporary closure of schools, stores, malls or restaurants. Unsurprisingly they cry, throw tantrums, scream and spin. Parents become depressed, too. So here are some key points for drawing up a schedule during the coronavirus quarantine with our autistic children:
First, give a clear explanation of quarantine with pictures or videos. Explanation is essential to make the children understand the rather drastic change of routines. Use pictures, videos or any other possible source to explain the concept of quarantine to your autistic children. Once they understand the concept, they will try to adjust their daily routine at home. Some outdoor activities can be replaced by fun indoor activities, such as watching movies, listening to music, painting or others.
Second, give children time to adapt to the new learning environment. Although schools are closed, they provide an alternative: online learning. For autistic children, studying means being at school, whereas activities at home mean relaxing or playing. Changing the concept of learning from school to home can be burdensome for them, so give them time to adapt to the home-learning concept. A video call with their teachers and classmates is one way to build an atmosphere of enjoyable home-learning. Parents can start home learning by showing pictures, videos or stories that can build a positive mood and help children with their subjects of study.
Third, make a schedule that is quite similar to their daily routine. The morning routine can be set the same, including waking up at 6 a.m., bathing and dressing. Then they can start studying at 8 a.m. and finish at 10 or 11 a.m. A break is important to release their feelings and energy. More importantly, home-learning should be consistent, so they know they have the same schedule as they have at school.
Children with autism are not the same. Those with sleeping disorder can wake up slightly later than usual to get their much-needed sleep and help them recover from emotional disturbances. Don’t push your children into the exact same schedule as normal times; parents should be flexible with regard to special conditions of the children.
Fourth, accompany them in doing school assignments. Autistic children usually do their school activities with teachers as their companions. They learn by looking at examples, working in groups; so studying alone at home could be scary for them.
Therefore, parents should take the teachers’ role of accompanying and guiding them in the tasks. Of course, when the children can work independently, parents should stand back, for they are guides only when needed. Parents have to control their emotions while teaching their children. Being patient is the key thing when handling home-learning for autistic children.
Fifth, parents can involve their children in household chores, for example: making up their beds, cleaning rooms, washing plates or cooking. These activities can help them release their stress while in home-learning.
Sixth, do some fun activities. Parents can create some fun activities, such as painting, art and craft, playing with dough, fun games, dancing, workouts, etc. Involve their siblings to join the activities and ask them to work in groups. These activities can support bonding among family members. Apart from watching easy tutorial skills, parents can also use technology to have quality time with the whole family; there are zoos and museums online, for instance.
Seven, remember to appreciate everything that your autistic children have done. Even though their work is not perfect, give compliments for every single step they do. Parents can also give an award if they reach a certain level of achievement. Don’t deal out punishments for their mistakes but encourage them to do better at the next task. Useful resources include autismspeak.org and themomkind.com and education materials from the Association of Indonesian Psychologists (HIMPSI).
Lastly, stay positive, happy and patient. It is not easy to manage time efficiently with autistic children during the quarantine, because they can easily become bored at home. Find activities that can raise their enthusiasm, but most importantly, create a comfortable environment for them during these hard times.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.