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Parenting a child with autism during COVID-19 - Family Bank Limited, Kenya

There is a new order with the COVID-19 pandemic. What does this mean? It means we have to change how we do things; we have to adjust to working from home and social distancing from friends and family and consequently, have a new routine. While this is aimed at flattening the curve, it also brings with it unforeseen challenges, especially for families with persons with disabilities.

I am a mother of one, with a son living with autism. As the world marks the month of autism (April), it is a good time to reflect. One of the key things when raising a child with autism is routine. All children have favourite toys or things they would like to do but for autistic children, their interests are often intense. They like to eat, sleep or play at the same time and do things in a specific order. Imagine you are on an office meeting via Zoom and your child is screaming non-stop in the background while your domestic manager opted not to quarantine with you and headed to their home! This can be a nightmare for a parent. How then can we offer support to our children living with autism during this time when routines have changed?

Talk to your child

Do not assume that your child does not know what is happening around you. Take time to explain to your child in a simple way that they can understand, and you can use images or a social story to do this. Explain to them this is why we are staying at home; mummy or daddy are not going to work or why we cannot do the activities that they like. It is also important to go over the ABCs of social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask. Remember to ask them if they have any questions to involve them in the conversation. Remain sensitive to the tone of voice you use. Autistic kids can be incredibly sensitive to other people’s emotions and they sometimes absorb and magnify these emotions. Try keeping the tone of your voice neutral or positive.

Establish a new routine for this season

Routines for children living with autism is a proven response to stress and anxiety. Communication is difficult for some of these children making it hard to understand what is happening around them. However, routines give them more control of their environment.

After explaining to your child what is happening, establish a new routine that works for both of you and stick to it. Children who get easily overwhelmed by visual or audio input experience agnosia and will need extra processing time or to be allowed time out to just chill. Create spaces within the house no matter the size of the house, where the child can identify the space as their chill space. Expect resistance to changing routines as a parent, but do not give up. Be patient with the process and find an online support group such as Through the Roof or Differently Talented Society of Kenya to share experiences and to find encouragement. If a child feels frustrated or scared usually witnessed by a deterioration of behaviour, regression or increased stimming, try talking together, doing crafts or even watching a favourite cartoon. Make sure you limit the time spent on social media or watching disturbing news during this period, especially for teenagers. Parents should also reduce the amount of disturbing media they watch as their children will pick up on their anxiety.

Use everyday things to keep a child engaged

During this time, a parent can engage a child by teaching them activities of daily living using everyday tasks such as washing dishes or even doing laundry. Teach your child how to wash the dishes, arrange utensils on the rack, and so much more of the household daily activities. Do it with them.

When washing clothes, also give the child some of his clothes to wash. He or she will learn by observation. Create a mini list and break down that list into a realistic step by step tasks. Begin with the least difficult skill to achieve so you can help build your child’s confidence. Once they master that task, move on to the next one. Look for small inexpensive rewards to keep your child motivated such as an extra half hour on YouTube kids or a favourite meal. Use a lot of verbal reinforcements and praise your child even for the least achievements. Rewards make learning pleasurable. Parent-child interaction is key during this time to avoid the child being frustrated.

Take advantage of online resources

We have lots of free learning materials for children living with disabilities such as do2learn and Google classroom digital resources among others. Take advantage and teach your child how to communicate different emotions and skills such as learning to wait or how to hold a pen, among other skills.

If you have a printer, you can print out the workbook; otherwise, just draw or write in your book and show the child or use your phone to show him the picture.

Create household rules

Similar to how your child has rules when they are in school, create some household rules together with your child when at home. Remember to visually write down the rules and stick them somewhere the child can refer to. While all the above lie squarely on the parent or guardian, remember to give yourself some grace. We are not perfect or able to do it as well as the experts can. It is important to take care of yourself too. As a parent, try to find some alone time to re-energise and do what you love like maybe learning a new hobby, listening to inspirational messages or even watching your favourite show. Remember, children feed off a person’s energy and emotions.

Be patient, calm and positive. As a parent, I know that we set some goals for our children and it does not always work out the way we would love to. However, these are our children. Love them and appreciate them and they will surprise you and show you how much more they have inside them.

Jacqueline Mathaga, is Family Group Foundation Manager and author of Raise Him UP that addresses her 14-year journey of raising her son.