MARCH 3, 2021 – 9:08 AM
It’s been nearly a year since international autism expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., weighed in on how children with autism and their families were faring during the social isolation at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. For many Americans, not much has changed over the course of the last 11 months. Instead of our typical school routines, family outings and celebrations, children and teens are still spending a lot of time at home, experiencing everything from daily conversation to life events like celebrating birthdays virtually. Remember the days of cutting back on screentime?
Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a noted lecturer on autism, knows that as a result of coronavirus, children with autism have had to adjust to a myriad of changes, surprises and disappointments during the past year, which many experts agree can lead to discomfort and even regression in their development. These worries are warranted during this unprecedented yearlong isolation that still has no end in sight.
According to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 can greatly affect children and young people–both directly and indirectly. The CDC states, “Beyond getting sick, many young people’s social, emotional and mental well-being has been impacted by the pandemic. Trauma faced at this developmental stage can continue to affect them across their lifespan.”
Before COVID-19, Grandin, 73, held court at national and international conferences. Parents, caregivers and educators would often share stories with her about the many challenges their children with autism face.
Now, Grandin, the author of more than a dozen books, is hosting virtual conferences. She hears from concerned parents who have watched their children lose focus and struggle to keep up with assignments and homework during virtual classes, for example. These caregivers have seen the negative effects on their loved ones in the past year of social isolation. Grandin shares their worry about how all of this will affect their children in the long-term.
For Grandin, she fears families will settle with these circumstances, and come to accept that children with autism will regress in education and socialization. “So many people have been dragging because they are sick of all this. They never expected it to go on so long. The novelty of working from home has worn off for many of us, and I know that there are some people who feel almost paralyzed by fear,” Grandin tells Parade.com. “We have to be careful, but we must take a certain amount of risk, forge ahead and figure out new ways of coping and getting along,” says Grandin, who is releasing her latest book, The Outdoor Scientist, in time for Autism Awareness Month (April).
At a time when our patience has hit our last nerve, and when we still need to be kinder and more accepting of one another, we reconnected with Grandin to get advice particularly for parents of children on the autism spectrum–as well as their neurotypical peers–on preventing longterm effects of isolation.
As always, consult with your child’s healthcare team before incorporating any of these tips into their routine.
1. Stick to a schedule–no slouching around!
“You have to establish a schedule and write it down,” Grandin says. “Set a work and school schedule for the family members and find the best way to coexist in the same space. After school work and homework make some time for fun activities like a board game or a puzzle.” She continues, “Also, we are still living together in close proximity, so carve out some alone time for reading or other solo activities. We can look to the astronauts in the International Space Station as great role models for this.” She insists, “Just the act of getting showered and dressed in the morning helps us get ready for our day. You can wear soft and comfortable stuff, but not the same clothes that you slept in. I still insist no slouching around in our pajamas!”
2. Consider family pods
“Some families have started forming quarantined pods where they get together with another family and take turns teaching the kids. If you don’t have anyone over age 65 or 70 or someone who is at a higher risk in the household, you could do it now,” she suggests. “Don’t make this pod too big, just two or three families that can help and support one another. These three families can make their own little school and fill the educational and social void that so many of our children are experiencing.”
3. Get moving
The increase in childhood and teen obesity during COVID-19 is a genuine concern to Grandin. “Being home often means easy access to snacks and less physical activity for all children. We need to get out there and make snow sculptures and snowmen,” she advises. “We need to walk and we need to move, and do it outside if the weather permits.” She insists, “we need to get them out walking, running and playing.”
4. Consider sending kids back to school
As long as they can adhere to all safety precautions and regulations, Grandin says, “we need to get younger kids back to school, especially those under age 10 who are having difficulty keeping up with Zoom classes and may not have great Internet connections.” She says, “When it comes to regression and catching up, I am most concerned about the little kids, that’s for both neurotypical children as well as children with autism.” Some children may be resistant to wearing masks at school, but Grandin suggests parents explain that “we need to comply with new rules and you have to wear one, but you can pick the one you want–one with a design or picture of a favorite character, movie or sport, for example.” If your schools are still closed or you aren’t ready to send your child back yet, she has one pro tip: “Children will be more engaged with online classes if they have their cameras on.”
5. Think outside the Amazon box
“As a child, I made parachutes and kites out of inexpensive stuff you can find around the house. There are so many arts, crafts and science projects that children can do at home where they can learn and have fun at the same time,” she says. “There are a lot of creative activities that you can do in the neighborhood.” Need an idea? “We’re getting all of these Amazon boxes delivered. They are great for making cardboard ‘bricks’ of different shapes. We can paint them, tape them and use them to build things,” she suggests. In need of some ideas? Grandin’s got more: “In April, just in time for Autism Awareness Month, I have my new book The Outdoor Scientist, coming out and it focuses on projects we can do for children of all ages. It can’t be all work; there has to be fun and creative play as well.”
6. Look toward the future
With a break in school and job programs during COVID-19, a lot of long-term plans have been put on hold, which concerns Grandin. While having a strong work ethic and job skills is important for all children, it’s even more vital for young people with autism because of the high unemployment rate (nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job) that they face. “A lot of young people are not learning work skills or given responsibilities and this does not lead to productive jobs later in life,” she says. “Look into fostering skills such as cooking, sewing, car mechanics and other trades. Give them chores around the house like laundry or dishes and in the neighborhood like dog walking, helping give out the snacks at church, or helping set up a stand at the farmer’s market.” She continues, “children with autism need that sense of work ethic and work skills or they often end up playing video games all day.” Her tip is, “it’s always best to start teaching these skills early!”
If you want additional resources to help your children with autism, we’ve rounded up 10 life-changing books for families living with autism