We are living in unprecedented times and that has led to a lot of strain and anxiety among parents and families. This may be felt even more so by parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. Clinic Manager Dr. Chris Furlow, BCBA-D, with Canopy Children’s Solutions’ Autism Solutions shares thoughts about how autism families can cope during this unusual time.

Many parents have expressed concerns about being able to maintain their child’s sense of normal life in the midst of a very abnormal situation. Since each child’s treatment plan is individualized specific to their needs, Furlow cautions parents against trying to follow generalized recommendations based solely off of something they saw online. An example is creating a concrete daily schedule in the home that’s designed be run in a school classroom or an ABA early intervention clinic.

“Those schedules may not even be reasonable for parents to use at home with typically-developing children during times of high-stress and constant change. Having flexibility is crucial for everyone’s mental and emotional state. Temper your expectations is the best advice I can give families that are finding a way to adjust to our ‘new normal,’” says Furlow.

“Children with autism thrive on structure and routine but that doesn’t mean you have to recreate their typical day that may be full of activities at school and various therapies. Keep up the routines that you can, like morning routines, bath time, mealtimes and bedtime. Keeping up basic routines will still give children a sense of normal even if other parts of their day may look very different.”

An activity Furlow encourages autism parents to sprinkle into their day now more than ever is to spend quality time with your child. Positive attention is an important part of autism therapy and generally leads to increased compliance and opportunities for learning. While playing with your child, point out when they’ve done something well. A “yay, you did it!” with hugs and tickles can go a long way Parents can comment on what they’re doing, repeat what their child says, imitate their play with toys, and praise the child for playing appropriately. Parents can also attempt to expand what they’re doing to teach new, different ways to play. If a child likes to run, try incorporating a game like “Red Light, Green Light,” turn it into a race, or a game of chase. But it’s important to note if the child isn’t interested, don’t force the issue. Be in the moment with whatever you are doing and follow your child’s lead. The take home point is: just focus on having fun.

“If you are working from home, your attention will not always be solely focused on your child, and that is totally expected and ok,” says Furlow. “Take those moments that you can carve out of your schedule to be in the moment with your child doing something they enjoy. Don’t try to lead, just let them do their thing and be a part of it; play shouldn’t feel like work for you or your child.”

Many parents may notice more meltdowns and this is completely expected and understandable. Parents should expect that there will be a tough period particularly with children who are resistant to change. Furlow encourages parents to remember that this is temporary. Choose your battles and remember that this situation is difficult for our kids also!

“During quarantine or social isolation, kids may not have access to the attention they are used to (like in one-on-one therapy), their favorite activities like going to the park to swing or going down slides, or they may just feel overwhelmed because so many things are changing at once. While meltdowns are hard and stressful for everyone. Sometimes if you take a minute to step back, you can understand why they are having a meltdown – is it because your attention is on other things or there’s something they want but can’t have? Asking these questions can help provide insight on what we can do as parents to change things for the better.”

Some parents have expressed concerns about regression. Furlow again asks parents to temper their expectations because what may seem like regression may merely be an adjustment period.

“Prioritize the things that matter the most for you and your family. These should be goals you have talked about in therapy. Maybe it is attending to others by giving eye contact, consistently following directions, or using some form of communication (e.g., words, pictures, signs) to express what they want. The tools parents learn in parent training should help children to maintain the skills they have learned and they should already be practicing them at home throughout their day as opportunities arise. Give clear directions, follow through with what you tell your child, and praise them when they comply with your directions.”

Children will also learn and maintain their skills naturally through the play skills mentioned earlier. Playing games encourages taking turns and social skills. As an additional example, reading their favorite books can engage the child in a variety of ways. Pointing out items in books and having the child point them out on new pages; using identification skills or even exploring textures.

“If you are reading a touch and feel book, try running your finger over the textured area and see if your child will imitate what you are doing,” says Furlow. “Everyday items can be great tools in helping kids maintain skills like sorting, matching, labeling, and identification. The important thing to recognize is your child’s individual strengths and limitations. Working on teaching new things in a natural way through play requires a balance between following the child’s lead and pushing them to learn new things. Pushing them too far or too hard could cause them to try and avoid these situations in the future if it’s not fun anymore. Try not to stress too much. Kids who are away from therapy for a stretch of time may not come back and do everything perfect and may need some time to get back into the swing of things, but put it into perspective that it’s not too likely you will be starting over at square one.”

“Truthfully, I want to encourage parents, those of neurotypical and neurodiverse children, to be careful about putting huge expectations on yourself all at once,” says Furlow. “This is a big adjustment for all of us, and parents are feeling the pull from all directions—how to work from home, care for your family, manage their child’s educational and developmental needs, keeping everyone safe and getting what your family needs—it is a real struggle.”

“What I want parents to remember is to give yourself some grace. You are not going to be perfect, but you are going to be enough.”