The introduction of COVID-19 into our lives at the end of February brought with it uncertainty, disruption to routine and perhaps most difficultly, unpredictability. These are discomforts that many of us will find incredibly difficult to process, and that is with us being kept fully informed by the news and online sources. This has been a culture shock for us all.
In AsIAm, we often describe being autistic as ‘living in a world that was not built with you in mind’. Every day autistic people are expected to adapt their communication, interpretations and actions to fit into a confusing, abstract world. Structure, routine and predictability are absolutely essential to being able to navigate your way around it.
Many parents of children on the spectrum may be finding it difficult to know how to support their child at this time. All essence of routine and predictability has been removed without any indication of when life will return to ‘normal’. This lack of control is what breeds anxiety. Anxiety in young children can manifest itself in many ways; being upset, withdrawal, increased attachment, constant questioning or need for reassurance over basic things, or even communicating needs in a way that might be challenging for you as a parent. Here are some tips and strategies to help a child, autistic or not, to manage their anxious feelings during this time.
Create structure in the midst of uncertainty
It is really important that your child has some structure right now, as it is human nature to have a routine. You will know what level of structure your child requires and whether it needs to be supported visually, but having a timetable for the day or week can be massively helpful to the child who relies on it. This does not need to be a structure that emulates that of preschool or school, but giving designated times for different activities can help a child to feel less anxious and make the day pass quicker.
Some children may need more specific schedules and may need visuals rather than verbally communicated, but it is really important for children to have some element of structure to their new ‘normality’
Arts and crafts
Go for a walk
Read a book
Board games with family
Don’t try to redirect the feelings
As parents, it can be incredibly difficult to see your child worry or be upset and the immediate instinct is to shield them from it or make it go away. While this might seem to help in the immediate term, it does not help your child to regulate or understand their own feelings. Anxiety is normal. It is a normal feeling, that children must learn to feel just like every other emotion. It is important that you do not invalidate their worry at this time by saying things such as “you don’t need to worry about that”, or “don’t be silly it will be ok”. Instead, validate their feelings by acknowledging them – “I can see that you’re worried. Sometimes I get worried too and that’s ok.”
Don’t shield them from what is happening
Many news reports and advertisements on TV are quite scary right now, and it is understandable why parents may not wish their child to see or hear it. However, children are incredibly instinctive and are going to pick up on the changes they see and hear around them. It is much better to explain what is happening in a child friendly way, than responding with ‘it’s nothing’ when they do see the TV and ask what that’s about. This way, they will have a clear explanation with time to ask you questions, rather than filling in the gaps for themselves and becoming more anxious or afraid.
Acknowledge but re frame negative thoughts
The change of routine and restriction on every day activities may be difficult for your child, and there may be a huge amount of focus on the things they can no longer do. So if your child is to say “I miss seeing my friends in preschool” or “I wish we could go to the playground”, acknowledge this and say “yes, I know it is difficult not to be able to do those things”, but remind them of something they are able to do – “but isn’t it great that we get to stay at home and bake together” or “I’m really happy that I get to go for walks with you every day”.
Model positive ways to cope with anxiety
You have suddenly found yourself to be in the position of not only a parent, but a teacher ( and cook, cleaner, baker, dance instructor etc etc….) so more so now than ever, your child will be looking at how you respond to this change and how you manage it yourself. Instead of protecting how you are feeling from them, it will teach them so much more if you say “I feel a bit anxious today, let’s go out for a walk” and then when you return, expressing to them how much better you feel for doing that.
Manage expectations (be realistic!)
At this point, your child’s routine has been disrupted for 2-3 weeks. There are going to be many questions about ‘when will this be over’ or ‘when can I see my friends’. It can be very tempting to say it will be over very soon or that it won’t be long, but the reality is we do not know this. It is ok as a parent to not have all the answers. Try to answer questions like these by saying ‘I know it is annoying and you miss school/your friends/your teacher. You will see them again, but I don’t know how long it will take.’ This may not be the response they want from you, but it is the response they will need to help them manage the expectation.
Fiona Ferris – Deputy Chief Executive Officer at AsIAm
Fiona joined AsIAm in 2017 coming from a background of Early Years Management. She wished to contribute her own experiences of being autistic, and a parent to a child on the spectrum, to help others understand things from an autistic perspective. Fiona aims to give practical, relatable knowledge and strategies to assist others in supporting the autistic community to meet their own individual potential right through the life cycle.