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How to Shelter in Place With a Child on the Autism Spectrum

If you’re like me, you may feel like the world turned upside down in the past week. As we all know, the world is almost entirely on lockdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system.

I am grappling with how to do my very interpersonal job — school counseling — through remote means (while simultaneously managing my family in person). My social calendar — already limited by our challenges in finding child care for my son who is on the autism spectrum — showed cancelation after cancelation. And I’ve found myself having one too many conversations about toilet paper with just about everyone I know.

Shelter in Place

As we press “pause” on almost everything in life, we have begun to grapple with the combination of autism and quarantine. My family’s radius has shrunk dramatically since an autism diagnosis changed our lives. In some ways, my family is better prepared than most for this. In others, we are like an unmoored ship.  As we work through this unprecedented challenge, I encourage you to take stock of both the strengths and challenges in your family and embrace them all. Just put one foot in front of the other and together we will get through this, separately.

Your schedule just got turned upside down

For kids who need routine, this is quadruply challenging. My neurotypical son B. is thrilled to spend hours making up his own schedule — reading, taking an online math class and playing video games with his friends (incidentally, all things he does on a regular basis, quarantined or not). On the other hand, Mr. D., my son on the autism spectrum, is used to his team of therapists rotating through our home and his highly structured classroom. Tapping on all sorts of public surfaces is one of his most common stims — it’s how he learns about the world.

You may be more used to staying home than you think

Between in-home therapies and difficulties finding childcare providers that understand your child’s needs, you may be more used to being at home than you realize.  And when you are all home, all day, you can very much be in control of what is often the most challenging part of the day for kids on the spectrum: transitions. You can ease into them or adjust them much more than under ordinary circumstances.

Your child can’t access “telehealth” or “distance learning”

Some kids on the autism spectrum may not have the attention span to watch a three-minute YouTube video, let alone focus on three weeks (or more) of online instruction.  So the idea of your kid listening to a therapist who is “in” your phone or tablet may seem far-fetched — but it’s worth a try.

Open spaces aren’t quarantined

Get outside.  If you live in a home with a yard, start there.  If not, walk around the block, or go to a park or beach without the temptation of playground surfaces and just run — or bring your own frisbee or ball.

Favorite foods may be out of stock

At some point, your child may struggle with a shortage of a favorite food or drink option.  This will be challenging, but it can be a tool for inching toward more food flexibility. During a recent stomach bug (ah, January, when a stomach bug was a “health crisis!”), Mr. D. subsisted for days on watered-down juice and licking the salt off some chips — but hopefully, any shortages will be brief.

Go “shopping” at home

Turn your pantry inside out and pop some popcorn or make a soup.  Use whatever flour you have on hand (corn, wheat, coconut, etc) to make some tortillas.  Consider what’s in your yard (maybe your kid will eat whole lemons, like mine?) or what you can plant. We are going to try planting some sprouting potatoes to see what happens!

Lack of access to typical playgrounds and other equipment

As gyms and other facilities close, and playgrounds are necessarily avoided, you may find your child is having difficulty meeting their sensory needs.  But as you shelter in place with autism, you might have some simple, surprising items in your home already.

Rethink household items

You may have found that your child on the autism spectrum doesn’t define “toy” or “game” in quite the same way as a typical family. There tends to be a lot of truth beyond the idea that many autistic individuals appreciate the wrapping (oh, the curly ribbons!) to what’s inside.  There is also often a need for durability that outstrips that of your average toy. Here are few of our favorite “accidental” toys:

Strainer — these come in all shapes and sizes; this clip-on style is the one I reach for most often, and thus the one that is most easily grabbed by Mr. D.  The smooth, brightly colored plastic is appealing enough for him, but you can also use it in dirt, sand or water.

Soft garden hose — designed as a space-saver, these hoses are lightweight, flexible and fairly durable.  Plus they make great transverse waves when you fling them around, but they are less likely to cause damage to other things than a more traditional, heavier hose.

Whisk — If you have several whisks in your kitchen, you may want to designate one to “sacrifice” for the cause of sensory exploration. Mr. D. has actually gone through several, but the enjoyment and satisfaction is worth the few dollars to buy him another inexpensive one.

Laundry basket/bucket — Sit in it. Stand in it. Put it over your head. Turn it upside down and use it as a “cage” for stuffed animals or other toys.  And if it’s solid-sided like a bucket, then it likely makes a great drum.

Blanket — Mr. D. has a preference for super-fluffy ones, but blankets of all shapes and sizes can be used to make forts, divide rooms and just generally bring comfort.

It can be hard to shelter in place when you have a child on the autism spectrum, but it is worth it for your family’s safety and the public health consequences. Just remember that we are all in this together, separately!

For more on parenting during quarantine, check out the following stories from our community:

Image Credits: tatyana tomsickova / Getty Images

tatyana tomsickova via Getty Images