As the COVID pandemic stretches into another year, parents and children with ASD may be feeling more overstretched than ever. Yet there is always a silver lining! By implementing these four autism therapy strategies at home, you and your child will feel calmer and enjoy this special time of bonding.
Routine is King in Autism Therapy
A predictable routine will help both children with ASD and parents navigate the unpredictability of this pandemic. As Dr. Mohiuddin of the University of Michigan aptly describes, “Children with autism may struggle with unanticipated changes and like to know what to expect. Knowing what’s going to come next gives them that predictability that’s so comforting.”
Ask for your child’s input in creating a comfortable, predictable routine. Then consider creating a visual schedule together, with pictures of their activities. The Autism Treatment Network has an excellent video on how to assemble a visual schedule.
Using audio cues, such as a set timer when it’s time to transition to the next activity, can be a helpful part of ABA therapy at home too.
Creating a Calm Environment
With so much time spent at home now, a calm environment is more important than ever. Survey your home and attempt to remove distracting stimuli or dampen it. The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee has an excellent resource guide on how to make your home work for your child with ASD.
How can you make your home environment as calm as possible? Here are some easy modifications that can be done quickly and affordably.
- Create a private, safe space. A retreat will be a welcome place when your child feels overwhelmed. Ask your child what color is preferred and give control over the light, sound, and air in the space. This is of course the bedroom, but consider creating other spaces where your child can have meaningful control and choices. This can be an area in the living room or a bathroom, which can be turned into a safe place where they can practice independence and regain control.
- Consider the lighting. Is the lighting and ambiance in your home comforting and calming? For some children with autism, fluorescent lights can be too intense.
- Minimize clutter, which can be overstimulating.
- Reconsider patterns. If your child is sensitive visually, patterns may be too much stimulation. Consider solid colors, especially in green (which is restful) or light blue (which aids in concentration).
- Make an outdoor space. Fresh air and the natural peace of nature may be just the remedy in this time. An enclosed porch or patio is a great place for your child to go independently. A hammock, swing, or table in the yard can help encourage your child to transition into the yard with enjoyable, soothing activities.
- Watch the sound. White noise machines can be helpful for reducing sensory overload. Provide noise-canceling headphones to help block noise if needed.
Another very important consideration is monitoring screen time. Whereas screen time is an asset for remote learning and connecting socially, too much screen time can worsen issues with irritability, hyperactivity, and sleep. On the schedule, designate when, where, and why screen time will be used. This will help your child’s transition of screen time and limit overstimulation. Many parents themselves may be working on screens from home, but intentionally take time away from the computer throughout the day to enjoy one-on-one time with your child. This can be as short as 10 minutes and will help you both enjoy this special extra time together.
Consider also limiting your child’s exposure to the news, which in today’s climate can be very jarring and worrisome for parents and children alike. Hearing about pertinent news from you is a much more comforting delivery method than today’s news programs.
Mindfulness for Parents and Children
In today’s pandemic, even one day at a time can be too much. Give yourself and your child the grace of one moment at a time. The present is a gift, and the practice of mindfulness is precisely this understanding. Mindfulness is part of ABA therapy’s “Acceptance and Commitment Theory” (ACT), which helps develop psychological flexibility through combining mindfulness with the practice of self-acceptance.
Mindfulness has been shown in pilot studies to help parents and children with ABA therapy. In a literature review of mindfulness interventions in parents and their children with ASD, long-term positive effects were observed for both, as published in The Journal of Child and Family Studies, including:
- Reducing stress
- Increasing psychological well being
- Concomitant improvements in child behavior
In one specific study of mindful awareness, children’s “social communication problems decreased, and their emotional and behavioral functioning improved,” as consistently reported by the parents. The parents themselves experienced “improved emotional and behavioral functioning, improved parenting, and increased mindful awareness on all occasions.”
How can mindfulness be especially helpful for children with ASD? As outlined by researchers in the journal article “Mindfulness-Based Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Parents: Direct and Long-Term Improvements”
- Central coherence: In mindfulness, children practice shifting their attention between a wide and narrow perspective. This helps them develop a perspective that both internal and external experiences are passing events in a greater sense of awareness, helping them to not pay excessive attention to details.
- Executive functioning: Mindfulness helps children to control the focus of attention, which helps them notice their automatic impulses. This perspective helps them to respond with awareness, rather than impulses.
- Improvement in social communication and interaction: The awareness of the present moment extends to interactions with other people. This can help children focus on the social interaction, rather than distractions from ruminative thoughts or sounds in the environment. Awareness of our own emotions through mindfulness helps us to understand other people’s emotions too. In addition, mindfulness can help increase awareness of the impact of one’s behavior on others.
In a pilot study that simultaneously trained adolescents with ASD and their parents in mindfulness, the adolescents reported a significant increase in their quality of life, with reduced rumination. Parents reported an increase in their children’s social responsiveness, including social communication, social cognition, and preoccupations. (De Bruin et al. 2015).
Of course, mindfulness helps parents too! Mindfulness allows parents to better observe their children in an accepting, nonjudgmental way, understand the child’s perspectives, and respond calmly. Pilot studies have found that mindfulness as part of ABA therapy increases a family’s quality of life and a decrease in parenting stress. (Hwang et al. 2015).
How can you begin practicing mindfulness? Pay attention to the present moment. Let go of future worries or past struggles. Purposefully stay focused on the present moment, with an open heart filled with compassion, acceptance, and curiosity.
Tune into your present experience. How do you feel? What do you sense? Mindfulness is awareness and acceptance. Be compassionately accepting of all you and your child feel and experience, without any judgement. Remember: this too shall pass.
How can you help your child be mindful? Do it together! Meditate together. Take deep breaths together. Mindfulness is a practice that takes practice, and it’s a beautiful experience to have together. In the Washington Post, Parent Sarah Bradley shares her positive personal experience parenting a child with autism who is practicing mindfulness. Breathe Kids comes as a recommended meditation app.
With more time at home together, parents and children have a beautiful opportunity to explore together. This is a great time to work on independent daily skills through being together, whether it’s doing the dishes or laundry together. Have you wanted to cook together? Paint or sculpt together? Plant a garden together? Practicing skills at home is a great way to augment ABA therapy.
Think of this pandemic as a gift of an adventure together. As Liane Kupferberg Carter beautifully shares in the NY Times piece, How Having a Child With Autism Helps Me Ride Out the Pandemic:
“I tend to be a catastrophizer, but now, more than ever, I’m aware of how my son takes his cues from me. Kids absorb our fears, as well as our ways of regulating our emotions. If I stay calm, he (usually) will too…Framing scary experiences as “adventures” has gotten us through many challenging experiences…I hadn’t realized the extent to which my son had taken my words to heart, though, until one night recently…when our son suddenly announced, ‘I love having this adventure with you and Dad.’” Here’s to the great adventure of 2021!