Helping Kids With Autism Cope With Schedule Disruptions

Both young and old are struggling with the changes in day-to-day life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but for children on the autism spectrum, this new way of life can cause some serious issues. Here, the owner and director of the Spark Center for Autism offers advice.

Boy pointing at the calendar on the wall with days and activities arranged developing game with his parent sitting opposite at the table indoors

COVID-19 has changed our lives in a big way. Schools are closed for the remainder of the year. Some parents are balancing working from home with acting as their kids’ teachers, while others are on the front line and unable to be home. And, in some cases, children with autism aren’t receiving their therapeutic interventions.

“It’s important for parents and for service providers to understand that yes, you’re going to have setbacks. You’re going to have regression, but it’s OK — we’ll get through it,” says Reena Naami, the owner of the Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills. “There are ways to help manage it.”

It’s important to remember that these changes have a great impact on everyone.

“This is a huge change for all of us, too. Even as simple as changing the time of day that you wake up can be a huge disruption, so thinking about how those kinds of things affect us” is important, Naami says.

While some people can work through those adjustments, children on the autism spectrum can be impacted more because they don’t have the skills and coping mechanisms to manage these changes. It’s often harder for children with autism to be flexible or go with the flow, Naami adds, because they have some rigidity.

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Routines are essential when it comes to helping kids with autism cope with all the changes in their lives. Here, Naami offers some advice for parents.

Stick with the same sleep and wake-up times

“I know it can be really tempting to sleep in or let the kids stay up later, but that’s one thing that can be really difficult to retrain later on,” she says.

During the week, try to stick with the same routine that you had when school or other services were in place.

Build a schedule

Spend 10-20 minutes per activity or subject, followed by a break. Breaks should get longer as time goes on. For example, do a writing activity for 10 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. Then, do a reading activity for 10 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. After that, do a math activity for 10 minutes, then have a 20-minute break. During those shorter breaks, limit the activities that are available during the shorter breaks. Free play is ideal for longer breaks.

Every structured activity doesn’t need to be academic, Naami notes. Be sure to incorporate crafts, or even try building an obstacle course.

“If creating a full daily routine feels too overwhelming, try to create mini routines throughout the day that are a little more generic,” she suggests.

For example, start with a morning wake-up routine that’s 30 minutes long, followed by morning play for a half-hour, school stuff for 30 minutes and then lunch. Essentially, you’re creating blocks of time where you do certain things each day. Incorporate free, virtual resources into each day, as well. To help move things along, use timers and transition warnings.

Using “first, then” statements and timers, in addition to providing choice between two or three different tasks, is helpful for children with autism, she says.

Also, weather permitting, head outside mid-day. “It will kind of give that same feeling of recess and give a brain break for everybody,” Naami says.

Create a visual schedule

Visual schedules are helpful for both children and adults. There are many ways to put these together.

“You can make them more complex if you need to by having the day’s schedule written out hour-by-hour, or it can be a lot simpler by using generic pictures to indicate the activities,” she says, like a snack.

For older kids, post the schedule somewhere in the house, such as the refrigerator or a bulletin board in the office. Schedules for little ones should be more portable (think a dry-erase board).

Check with your child’s teacher to see if he or she can send you a PDF of what they used in their classroom so that you’re not having to recreate it, she says.

“Something that I like to suggest is to indicate the task is done with whatever visual you use,” Naami says. This helps early learners have a better idea of what’s expected while older learners are able to check things off themselves to show a task is complete.

Contact service providers

Even though the Spark Center for Autism’s office is closed, its board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) are offering caregiver training through a HIPAA-compliant web video chat service.

If telehealth services are authorized, Naami suggests taking advantage of them. “It’s not going to hurt to check in from week-to-week with your service providers because they are still going to be able to provide you with resources.”

Be kind to yourself

“The big thing that I just want to keep stressing is for parents not to forget self-care,” she says. “They really need to give themselves opportunities for breaks.”

It’s important to know that this is going to be stressful to balance it all, but things don’t have to be perfect.

“Do what you can and not what you feel you have to do,” she says.

Look into telehealth for yourself, too. Be sure to reach out to your primary care physician for recommendations, referrals and resources.For more information on the Spark Center for Autism, visit sparkcenterforautism.com.

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