Autism and Developmental Disabilities in the time of Covid-19
St Vincent and the Grenadines has a wide cross-section of vulnerable populations that are now trying to grapple with the realities of Covid-19 and its subsequent effects. We have been bombarded with news from every corner and the truth is, everyone is nervous and anxious but none more so than parents of children who are differently-abled, I’d imagine. Today, I would like to target two populations in particular: Children with disabilities and children with autism specifically.
Parents and caretakers of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities face unique hurdles in communicating about Covid-19. Children with disabilities and children on the autism spectrum are extremely sensitive to their surroundings and pick up on non-verbal communication better than the average person. In fact, many parents will tell you that these children seem to have a sixth sense as to their moods and feelings and can be very loving and caring when their parents seem to have a bad day. It is this very ‘sixth sense’ that is picking up the anxiety and uncertainty that parents and guardians have been feeling over the past month. So how do parents go about breaking down the information about this pandemic to such children?
1. Using language/pictures that is appropriate to their communication level and cognitive level. Children with disabilities and those on autism spectrum may tend to be more visual learners than auditory learners. Using pictorial representation or even games to show them the importance of washing their hands and not hugging or kissing all their friends should really help to get the message across. Pictures can be broken down into step by step examples such as turning on the tap, a photo of wetting the hand, another photo of using soap, etc.). Simple sentences and simple terms can also help to break down what can be an overwhelming amount of information.
2. Remain calm and reassuring. Children will react to and follow your non-verbal cues. Remind them that you and their teachers will keep them safe and healthy. Those parents with smart phones or other technology can even call the teacher (s) to help reassure the child.
3. Make yourself available. There has been a shift to their routine and they might not be able to attend school or see their friends. Reassure them that this is only for a time and show them a lot of love and affection. It is important that they know that there is someone who will listen to them.
4. Monitor/limit their television and social media use. This is important because the cognitive and intellectual levels of these children may cause them to misinterpret information that may be based on rumors or inaccurate information. Developmentally inappropriate information may cause confusion or anxiety in young children. If you do let your children use technology, only let it be done to view hand-washing techniques or play matching games for a limited amount of time.
5. Children with Autism require structure and routine so if parents/guardians can maintain those, there will be fewer tantrums. Having a routine is key because it encourages/enhances communication skills and decreases frustration among these children. If you feel as if you’re not able to do this on your own, please contact the child’s teacher to assist you.
6. Be honest and as accurate as possible. When there is no information given to these children at all, they can imagine the reality to be worse than it actually is. So share with these children how this virus can be caught and how to protect themselves. Children with disabilities use kisses and hugs as a means of expressing themselves and this is one of the ways that the virus can be transmitted so show them elbow bumps or heart signs can be a new way of displaying their affection.
7. Finally, if your child is on a specific diet or medication, please do not lapse in this area. Now is not the time to overcompensate and give the children sweets or corn curls especially if they should be on a sugar free diet. Be sure to maintain your child’s medication and dosage and communicate with the child’s pediatrician if you’re unsure.
It is imperative that no one is left behind in the fight against Covid-19 and this includes one of our most vulnerable populations. I implore persons who are parents and caretakers of these children to ensure that you explain to them the necessity of withholding from their need to display physical affection at this time, so that they can remain safe and healthy.
Further information can be found on the WHO website for parents who are looking for resources.
Kimberley Cambridge, MSc., C.R.C
Milton Cato Memorial