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COVID-19: A New Normal for Those on the Autistic Spectrum?

For autistic people, the pandemic is taking a particular toll.

Photo by Tom Thanachart from FreeImages
Source: Photo by Tom Thanachart from FreeImages

No one is immune to the disruptions that the coronavirus pandemic is forcing upon daily life. But for people on the autism spectrum, the loss of familiar routines is especially damaging, often leading to deep anxiety that can be difficult to surmount.

The good news is, we already have tools to guide autistic individuals through these commonly dark days. We have a time-proven methodology. It’s a matter of making sure support reaches those in need.

For younger people on the spectrum, including school-age youth, it’s extra crucial that families shepherd the transition from an established routine to a new one. While the process will be different for each family, every parent or guardian should pay close attention to whether the transition is easing worry, and not hesitate to adjust course if required.

Among those well-established practices that can help:

Communicate in the way the autism person best interacts. In many instances, using a visual schedule for the day creates a sense of needed predictability and stability.

As much as possible, in a shift from classroom to in-home learning, employ materials and plans that the youngster is accustomed to using in the conventional classroom.

Attempt to recreate, at home, the habits and touchstones of the classroom day. This might include circling up everyone in the household during the morning to take “attendance” and review what’s in store and who’s at home. Similarly, lunch and mid-morning snack times can be adapted for home life.

Be in touch with the school teacher to keep track of what lessons had been unfolding in the classroom and see what can be replicated in the home. Some dimensions of lesson-planning may be easier than others, but every effort on this front can help foster a sense of normalcy and consistency.

The self-containment triggered by the pandemic isn’t all hardship, though. For many on the spectrum, the added reliance on online communication and interaction can be a welcome change. After all, many online platforms greatly reduce or eliminate the distraction of reading nonverbal communication. Because the digital space is mostly rooted in written text or on video that can be replayed, it provides more time and space to process what others are communicating and to formulate replies.

That’s often a godsend for those on the autism spectrum, who may have a slower processing speed.

Social distancing, or perhaps better referred to as "physical distancing," too, can be a help for autistic people. We tend not to love crowds; as close physical proximity tends to intensify the social interactions we find difficult. In many ways, we’re actually well equipped for this crisis.

Like everyone else, we’re just going to need a little extra help along the way. There’s only one way through: Together.

More from Stephen M. Shore Ed.D.
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