The pandemic lockdown severely restricted access to day-to-day activities for all of us. But for parents of kids with autism — who depend on visits to the library and grocery store to help build and maintain social skills — these experiences all but dried up. Fewer trips out into the community means fewer opportunities to build skills, says Reena Naami-Dier, M.S., BCBA, LBA, owner and director at Spark Center for Autism. Now, parents are focusing on post-pandemic life for their child with autism.
“We have found that social skills were the first thing to take a hit after the height of the pandemic,” says Naami-Dier. “While overall adaptive skills and language and communication skills may have slowed down, many of these skills were likely easier for families to continue supporting at home, at least to some degree.”
A backslide can have measurable negative effects on families. Socializing becomes challenging and parents find they must spend time on skills that were attained and then lost. “But beyond that, it can also have an impact on the mental health of the family,” says Naami-Dier. “A lot of people have struggled throughout this pandemic, but individuals with higher needs especially so.”
At Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills, Naami-Dier and her team of ABA therapists support children with autism and their families to increase functional skills to positively impact daily living. Here, she shares some practical tips for parents and caregivers to help their children regain skills lost during the pandemic.
The challenges we’re feeling during this stage of the pandemic are significant, so try to give yourself and your child plenty of grace, Naami-Dier recommends. “The most important thing to remember when helping your child reacclimate to community life is to have patience, both for your child and for yourself,” she says. “It can get easily frustrating to have to work on skills that your child had more progress in previously, but if they did it once, they can do it again.”
When we recognize that we’re all experiencing a form of trauma just from figuring out how to function during a pandemic, it makes sense that challenges can be more difficult to overcome. Even if your child is able to return to regular ABA therapy and other forms of supportive services, progress may be slow.
“Many service providers are also back in action and ready to help families, but it’s important to remember that your child likely experienced the same kind of trauma from the pandemic that we all did, whether we realize it was traumatic or not,” Naami-Dier says.
“Practice, practice, practice”
Prepare your child by practicing real-world scenarios in a safe and controlled environment. “Some kids do well with just talking through scenarios, for example, ‘What do we first do when we get to the store?’” Naami-Dier explains. “Others need more hands-on experience.”
At Spark Center for Autism, therapists recreate social situations and give children the chance to practice again and again. “And we will typically get parents involved to make it as close to the real thing as possible,” she says.
Preparation for doctor or dentist visits might require creativity, and ABA therapists help children practice small steps to help them become more comfortable. Practicing for a haircut might include having the child sit in a chair while someone plays with their hair, for instance. A dentist visit might require a child to practice lying down, opening their mouth and keeping it open.
Work closely with your child’s ABA provider
In Naami-Dier’s experience, parents want their children to regain lost skills relating to attending, being part of a group while practicing social distancing, self-help and independent play. Virtual school may have impacted growth in these areas, she says.
“While many other skills are important to overall development, these skills were imperative for children to be able to have any kind of success over the last year, and self-help and independent play skills in particular also helped relieve additional stress on the families, especially for those who had to work remotely while their children were also home,” she adds.
It’s always important to communicate openly with your child’s ABA provider so they can work with your child on skills that are important in your family. This hasn’t changed because of the pandemic. Staying connected with your child’s ABA clinic is a great way to stay involved in their therapy, Naami-Dier says.
“Caregiver training is absolutely imperative so that a child’s skills can generalize to the home setting, and so that caregivers are confident in their ability to promote their child’s independence and progress,” she says. “While it’s unreasonable to expect a parent to act as a child’s therapist, having basic tools in their back pocket will be beneficial in the event that we ever have another future shut down, and in general for the child’s continued progress. When there is consistency across environments, progress can be significantly higher.”
Remain positive and supportive
While it remains a very unwelcome visitor, the pandemic did provide opportunities for service providers, educators and parents to learn about how to better care for children with higher needs, according to Naami-Dier.
“It can be disheartening if your child did lose valuable skills over the last year,” she says. “That being said, if your child did lose some skills, or regressed in any way, the important thing to remember is that your child learned how to achieve those goals before. With consistency and help from any resources you may have, they can gain those skills again.”
Learn more about Spark Center for Autism at sparkcenterforautism.com.