Autism in Covid Times

ABA Therapist mask

2020 has been a year like no other. The outbreak of COVID-19 turned quickly into a global pandemic.  The risk of spreading the virus has led to a range of restrictions.  The initial stages were dramatic. Starting in March, everyone was asked to stay home as much as possible. All except essential businesses were closed, so those employees lucky enough to still be working were asked to do so remotely. Schools were closed, so ZOOM classes became a thing, and it fell to parents to try to get their own work done while trying to ensure that their kids stuck to some sort of class schedule. Even time off became challenging, with only limited time out of the house for exercise and brief shopping trips. These practical challenges for all have only been magnified by our ongoing fear of the virus itself.

The changes and uncertainty are difficult for everyone. Try throwing autism into the mix.

The reality is that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have had a tough time adjusting. So if you are having a tough time adjusting, you are not alone. You as a parent know that there are specific traits exhibited by your ASD child that only add to the challenges you are facing. But what are these traits, and what are the best ways to minimize any negative effects?

Hands-On Learners

The reason ABA Therapy is recognized as the most effective treatment for those on the autism spectrum is that it is based on directly observing specific behaviors and introducing and teaching alternative responses. It is a tool that is intentionally structured to account for the fact that ASD children are hands-on learners. What happens when the opportunity for hands-on learning is snatched away?  For instance, the BASS ABA Therapy model is a 1:1 child-to-therapist teaching ratio such that the child is always the focus of their attention and receiving instruction in the manner that will produce the best outcomes for them. As Executive Director John Adelinis says, “We make the effort to offer opportunities for learning in different areas of our centers, your home, or out in the community—wherever makes the most sense for your child. That has become more challenging due to COVID-19, but that just means we get more creative.”

Dependent on Routine

ABA therapy options

Students on the spectrum also benefit from routine. The public school switch to distance learning in March interrupted important routines.  John Adelinis puts it this way: ”We focus on what is called Natural Environment Teaching (NET), and our therapists are constantly inventing ways to adapt that to ZOOM and other remote learning tools. NET takes advantage of naturally occurring teaching opportunities. Our therapists use whatever is motivating the child at that time to help them learn. If a child is playing with a toy, the therapist will use it as a teaching tool because the most powerful thing in that child’s world is the toy they want to play with at that moment. NET allows children to work and play through their normal activities. It’s a fast-paced environment that uses a child’s desires in that moment to help them learn. That can still happen remotely, especially since we work so closely with the parents.”

Sensory Processing Issues

ABA behavior therapies and testing

While wearing a mask is uncomfortable at best, unpleasant sensory experiences can be intensely magnified in people with ASD. Harvard Health points out that many people with ASD are highly sensitive to touch, and the face can be especially so. Wearing a face mask involves many unpleasant sensations: texture of fabric, the tug of elastic on the ears, the warm damp smell of recycled air. Breathing in and exhaling air through the nose can feel restrictive. Face masks also create new social communication challenges, since individuals with ASD often have difficulty making eye contact. Parents can try to build their child’s tolerance for wearing a mask, even for just a few minutes at a time. They can demonstrate using the face mask on a preferred object or person (stuffed animal, doll, family member), and allow the person with ASD to choose a fabric that will make them more comfortable.

We’ve focused more on younger kids so far. What has the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic been on teenagers with ASD and their families? As Harvard Health points out, teenagers with ASD may already experience social and communication difficulties. Aggressive and self-injurious behaviors may also increase during this time of fear and uncertainty. But if teenagers with ASD are well-supported and socially connected during these difficult times, this period of social distancing may serve as a catalyst for personal development rather than a time of regression and loss of skills. They suggest that parents and/or caregivers:

  • Educate teenagers about COVID-19.
  • Keep the routines that you can keep.
  • Create new routines.
  • Practice old coping skills and learn new ones.
  • Increase communication.
  • Plan something to look forward to.
  • Seek mental health services.

Studies show that mothers with children with autism have stress levels that are equal to stress levels of returning combat veterans. It will be interesting to see post-COVID-19 tracking of this phenomenon. Maybe you can start a journal to track how you and your child are doing during this challenging time and to keep your ABA therapist in the loop. But the most important thing to know? You need to take care of you so you can take care of your child. AND the principles of ABA Therapy can help you every step of the way.