Parenting Neurodiverse Kids During COVID-19: A 5 Step Guide
Try these five research-backed steps for a coronavirus parenting plan.
Posted March 27, 2020
It’s difficult to parent neurodiverse kids during the best of times. Whether we’re parenting a child with special needs, a child who learns differently, a child on the spectrum, or a child with a mental health diagnosis, it’s different from standard parenting. It’s like we’ve been given a map of the town we grew up in, and we know those streets well. We can navigate them, we know what to do if there’s a roadblock, and we know all the shortcuts, back alleys, and detours. We know the perils and we know the safe spaces, too. But in the middle of the night, someone picked us up and deposited us across the globe, in a totally unfamiliar city, with no road-map, no phone, and no knowledge of the local language or customs. We’re likely to panic, make wrong turns, and struggle. Even if we’ve parented before, our previous experience doesn’t help us.
I call neurodiverse kids “superheroes in training” because I firmly believe that whatever their difference, it can be hacked into a superpower. I’ve seen parents and therapists work together to accomplish some amazing things. But now we’re in the midst of the corona-crisis, and it’s hard to know what to do and where to turn. There’s no respite from the need to homeschool. It’s hard to know which therapy homework to insist on, and what to leave aside. Children who are used to a lot of external stimulation—hours of specialized instruction, therapy, and social skills training—are left with very little stimulation at all.
It’s difficult for parents to decide what to prioritize. For many children, an interruption in therapy can set them back in irreplaceable ways. But what’s a parent to do? Working from home, the need to care for other children, the need to keep the home running—these don’t leave much time to suddenly become proficient in occupational therapy or special education! Even when therapists are working remotely, it falls to the parent to oversee that session, keeping the child focused or working in tandem with the therapist. It starts to feel like an impossible task.
I don’t have the perfect solution. I don’t think there is one. For those parents who are in touch with their children’s therapy teams, it’s important to be honest and upfront about how much time the parent has to invest in therapy, and plan accordingly. Certain skills decay rapidly and need to be practiced constantly. Others are more stable or can be picked up where they were left off. For example, reading fluency tends to decay much faster than math skills. If a parent only has time to prioritize one, reading makes more sense to work on. Some skills can be gamified, and the child will find working on them intrinsically motivating, and others are not worth the battle right now. Don’t be afraid to talk to the service providers, and if they are not being realistic, ask them to draw up a new plan. We’re all going to have to think outside the box these days.
In terms of managing the home in general, think A-B-C-D-E:
A – Acceptance
I’m thinking of acceptance in the acceptance and commitment therapy sense. We all have to accept the reality we are living in now. We have to be willing to accept the uncertainty, the discomfort, and the stress. Acceptance and commitment therapy views struggling with emotions as the root of psychological disturbance. Instead, it’s healthier to welcome the emotion in, accept it, and allow it to be. I like to talk to my emotions as if they are people. If Mr. Fear comes to visit, and tells me that there are so many things to worry about right now, and lists all the “what-ifs” he can think of, I’m not going to block the door and keep him out. Instead, I’m going to welcome him in. Giving ourselves permission to feel uncomfortable, stressed, scared or angry is the first step towards acceptance.
B – Balance
We need to try to find balance in our use of social media and following the news. While we might be allowing our kids (and ourselves) more screen-time than usual, we can’t have that be the only self-care plan. It’s OK to allow ourselves and our kids more screen time than usual, but we have to balance that with other entertainment options. Same with the news. It’s OK to follow the news, but if we find that we’re refreshing our newsfeeds to the exclusion of any other form of media, it’s time to bring some balance back into that. Maybe we need to make rules for ourselves, like “I only read the news at 2 p.m. and 9 p.m.” or rules like “screen-time after doing some chores and playing a real-life game first.” The goal isn’t to avoid the news and avoid screen time. The goal is to make sure there’s some balance, and widen the scope of coping tools available. After all, if there’s a blackout or the child’s device breaks, and that’s the only coping plan, we have a major problem. If we have a diverse pool of coping tools to draw upon, it’s much safer.
C – Calm
We have to model calm and self-calming routines for our children. The more we can demonstrate that we’re calm, that we’re engaging in activities that promote calmness and wellbeing, and the more we resist catastrophizing ourselves, the calmer our children will be. This will also give them a sense of security—my parents know how to remain calm in a crisis, so I can trust them.
D – Daily Routines
Setting up your day and your children’s day so that there is a daily routine is important. The routine can be loose, but it needs to be predictable. If it’s “morning chores and one homeschool task before screentime,” that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be that type of super-organized color-coded daily homeschool schedule some Instagram moms are posting. It’s fine if it’s loose, as long as the day has some structure and some predictability. Children need to feel that their world has some level of normalcy and stability. Personally, I’m insisting on a morning routine—we get dressed in the morning, as much as I understand the temptation to stay in cozy PJs. I like my children to do academic tasks and one fun exploration task (like baking or math with chalk on the sidewalk) before any screen time or electronic games. I’ve loosened the requirement that my children complete all homeschooling tasks. I’ve chosen subjects to prioritize, such as reading, and subjects that are not as important, so if we don’t get to them that day, it’s fine. I’d rather have my children feeling calm, cared for, and managing their stress than making sure they do every single social studies extension their teacher sent. As I've said in a previous post, parenting is not a competitive sport! (To read more on how social media leads to competitive parenting, click here and here.)
E – Exercise
This is particularly important if your neurodiverse child has sensory differences, ADHD, anxiety, or sleep disturbance. We need to exercise early, preferably in the sunshine (or in a room with the curtains drawn), so that we feel properly sleepy in the evening. Otherwise, a day with little social stimulation, a lot of screen time, and maybe some less-than-optimal food choices is going to lead to a sleepless night. We know that sleep is one of the crucial factors that builds the immune system and helps us manage stress. (To read more about the importance of sleep, click here and here. To read more about a plan to facilitate better sleep, click here.)
Movement is our friend, both for ourselves and for our superhero kids. This is one good aspect of all the competitive Instagram and Facebook parenting out there. I’ve gotten great ideas for movement games from my own social media. Obstacle courses using chairs or hula hoops, races, chalk games like Extreme Hopscotch—mix it up. Make it fun. But make sure it happens, even if you have to make more rewarding activities contingent on this.
Superhero kids have superhero parents. I have seen the heroics first hand. This is not going to be easy, but together, we can do this. (To read more about superhero parenting, click here.)
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020.
Hayes, S.C, Strosahl, K.D., & Wilson, K.G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd edition). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.