COVID-19 and Autistic Children

I have a 15-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum. He is in his first year of high school. For the beginning part of the school year, before COVID-19, he was doing well academically and socially. In fact, he loved school. He had many friends and was very verbal. Although he is autistic, I did not fret about his ability to be a social individual.

But since the coronavirus quarantine, he’s lost that desire to be social. He does not like to talk to his friends on the telephone (as many autistic folks don’t), and he will not participate in a Zoom meeting.

The reasons he gives for this are that “it’s weird talking to people from our house,” and “my bedroom is private, and I don’t want people to see it.” My son has always been anxious about new things; consequently, his being fearful of the Zoom process is par for the course.

My son is also afraid to leave the house because he’s afraid he’ll catch the virus. We tell him that taking a stroll around the block is safe, as long as we maintain a six foot distance from our neighbors and wear a face mask. But he’s hesitant to venture out.

The upshot of all of this is that I’m afraid he’s losing or will lose the social savvy he’s gained over the past couple of years. The only people my son comes into contact with these days are my husband, his uncle, his grandmother and me. This is just not healthy for any child, especially an autistic one. I’m feeling very isolated. I can only imagine how he feels.

In a nutshell, COVID-19 is extremely hard on my autistic child and, I suspect, on all autistic kids.

So how do we compensate for the lack of routine social stimulation? Below are some ideas that are working for us:

First of all, my son spends much of his typical day doing online school work — English, History, Algebra, Biology, Video Game Design, and a few other classes — and I know he feels connected to his teachers because of this.  If he didn’t have this work to do, I think he’d be in really bad shape in terms of his social life. My son loves his teachers, and he loves to please them. In short, his online school work is a plus in his life and makes him feel connected.

Parents, don’t bemoan the fact that your child has to work at home, and you have to supervise him. Celebrate the idea. It’s a way for him to stay in the communication loop.

Second, I’ve been trying to pick up the slack by talking to him more. We have long conversations as we drive along the “curvy, curvy” road (what he calls a back road in the suburbs of Akron, Ohio). We converse about everything. One of his big topics of conversation these days is how bad some of the camps and social programs we sent him to were. When he was younger, we tried everything to help him. Some of the special needs services were excellent, and some were horrible. Lately, he’s been rehashing the bad experiences he had at various places intended to help disabled folks. I’m glad he’s airing his feelings. Better out than in. Moms and Dads, if there are no friends for your child around, you must be his friend.

And then, there are the little things. My son’s bus driver misses the kids on her route, so she got permission from the high school to drive her normal route this Friday and wave to the kids. This might not sound like much, but for a child who has been cooped up and without social stimulation, this is huge. I know he will feel a connection because of the kindness of his driver and bus aids. They truly care about the students with special needs. If any of these tiny acts of kindness come along from people in your child’s social circle, take them up on them.

Next, although it might seem trivial, my son has been conversing with his pet. Parents of autistic children, if you don’t have a pet, I suggest you get one. My son says good morning to his puppy every day, and he likes to cuddle and talk to her. Although Chloe the beagle/terrier mix is not human, she is a living breathing creature who responds to kindness. Yes, if there’s no pet in the house during this pandemic, you are truly missing out.

As I mentioned above, our son is afraid to leave the house. But despite this, we strongly encourage that he walk around the neighborhood at least once a day. It is during these walks that he sees his neighbors and can wave or speak to them if he wishes.  We encourage this so that he feels connected to the human race. Parents, get your children outside despite their fears.  The fresh and sunshine are good for them and they won’t feel so lonely. 

And my brother has been doing projects with my son. Last week, they repotted plants and moved the whole collection of greenery down the stairs and into the spring air. This week, they are going to work on my brother’s car, installing a new trunk hatch. These projects break up the monotony of staying inside the house and help to further socialize my son during this difficult time. If family members have projects that need done, I suggest enlisting your child to help.  And, as in all of these activities, have them maintain their social distance.

Although my son is terrified of Zoom meetings, as mentioned above, we’ve talked him into trying a ZOOM online improvisation class. Parents, sometimes with autistic children (as with all children), you have to gently insist that they participate in activities that are good for them. They may hate it, but if you can get them over the initial hesitation, they usually end up adapting well to these new situations. (Stay tuned. Updates on how this virtual experience is going will be forthcoming.)  

Finally, we’ve been allowing our son to use social media to connect to people. He likes to post pictures on Instagram. People respond to them, as he does to their photos, and this is another way he maintains social connections. Parents of autistic children, consider allowing your kids to use social media, all the while supervising their screen time and knowing with whom they’re communicating.

In conclusion, none of us planned for this terrible virus to circle the globe. And none of us could anticipate how dangerous maintaining close social contact could become. We, like most, are simply making the best of a horrific situation.

COVID-19 is bad, but it’s much worse if you’re autistic. You are simply one step more removed from people, and this, although significantly detrimental, can be compensated for with a little love and creativity.

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