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8 Tips for People With Autism and Communication Challenges During COVID-19

This article was written collaboratively with Pam Martin, Training and Support Manager at Grafton Integrated Health Network

Imagine you are a person with autism or another developmental or mental health challenge that makes communication difficult. Now, imagine that all of the people around you are wearing masks. You can’t see their facial expressions and what they are saying is muffled. Individuals who have difficulty with communication often do better when they can take information from all aspects of their interaction with others and piece together the clues. But when others are wearing a mask, the ability to see a huge percentage of nonverbal language that comes from that section of their face is eliminated.

In addition, individuals with autism often do better with routine, and right now, that has changed entirely. In addition, those living in a residential treatment facility or group home cannot visit with their family. Add to all this an entirely new vocabulary of words they have never heard before – “social distancing,” “quarantine,” “COVID-19” and “coronavirus.” This could be a recipe for confusion which can lead to fear and anxiety, and all the natural coping behaviors  — some positive, others not so positive — that go along with them.

What can parents, guardians, educators and others do to provide the right support through these challenging times?

First, we need to recognize that this is equally as difficult for the individuals we serve as it is for us. More than ever, we need to come up with strategies to assist people to be able to interpret communication, even when it’s coming from behind a mask.

At my organization, Grafton Integrated Health Network — a behavioral health care organization serving children, adolescents and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, and complex mental health challenges — we recognize that when we lose one sense, the others tend to compensate. Thinking along those lines, here are some ways we have identified to compensate for the missing facial expressions and muffled sounds that occur when someone is wearing a mask:

1. Voice inflection. Emphasizing our voice inflections helps clients to better understand the differences between statements, questions, and requests. Now is the time to let your inner actor or actress come out from behind the mask!

2. Increased visual supports. Not only are social scripts and visual schedules important, but using images to represent what we are trying to say while we are saying it can make all the difference. For instance, instead of just asking someone if they want a drink, hold up a cup or a picture of a glass at the same time.

3. Physical gestures. Use physical gestures to point to things and mimic what we are trying to say while we are saying it. Put those mime skills to work!

4. Proactive/preventive strategies. When you anticipate that someone is likely to experience anxiety or fear in a particular activity, be sure to have the tools and activities that you know calm them on hand. Have sensory toys or swings at the ready or be prepared to go for a walk.

5. Clear use of our words. Speak slowly and enunciate words more purposely. This is also the perfect time to use words representing emotions to describe what is under the mask. For example, “I am so happy with the way you just made your bed.” Or verbally noting, “You put a big smile on my face.” Another option is holding up a picture representing your emotions. Print emojis to have handy or even use a very small dry erase pad to draw sad faces, happy faces, etc. Keep it simple!

6. Role play. Use social distancing role-play by practicing new ways to greet people, such as waves instead of handshakes. Act out what to do if someone gets too close by, for example, saying, “six feet, please” with an extended stop hand.

7. Transparency. The rules of engagement are changing nearly every day. Remember to keep sharing those changes openly, in a manner that is informative, timely and positive.

8. Attitude. This is, perhaps, the most important thing. It’s a challenging time for everyone, but individuals with autism and other developmental or mental health challenges may experience a heightened sense of fear and anxiety. Be prepared with a positive attitude and a resolve to be kind. Often, our own positive mindset is half the battle.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Nuthawut Somsuk.