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5 tips for parents with children on the autism spectrum during COVID-19 pandemic

Parents and children are adapting to life at home during the COVID-19 epidemic, but for parents of children on the autism spectrum, explaining what's happening in the world and helping them transition to the temporary normal can be a bit more challenging. 

Autism consultant recommends not getting too wrapped up in academics during difficult times

Natalie McLellan, a community consultant with the Autism and Behavioural Services Program at TVCC, recommends parents not get too wrapped up in academics and instead make teachable moments out of fun activities. (The Associated Press)

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of schools and daycares, parents and children are adapting to life at home. But for parents of children on the autism spectrum, helping their kids transition to the new normal can be a bit more challenging. 

Natalie McLellan is a family and community consultant with the Autism and Behavioural Services Program at Thames Valley Children Centre, which serves several counties in southwestern Ontario. 

She spoke to CBC London and offered tips for parents with children who have autism on how to navigate these times and make the transition smoother.  

McLellan says one of the most challenging things for children during this time is helping them transition their view on their home. 

"Social challenges are a big challenge for children, being in the community is a lot of work, so when the children come home, that's where they know they can relax," McLellan explained. 

"These children have quite a rigid belief that home is just for relaxing,  but if we do that for week after week, going back into school and into the community is going to be really hard." 

McLellan recommends increasing the demands at home in a slow and incremental way.

Here are five tips to help parents along the way: 

1. Maintain a routine

McLellan says keeping a routine of at least the time when children wake up and go to bed each day will be comforting for their bodies and will also make the transition to go back to school easier when the time comes.

Other parts of a routine can be added on, but incrementally.

"If that's all you can manage the first couple of days, start there," she said.

2. Get outside

McLellan says any activities that are done inside can be taken to the backyard and that way allow children to get fresh air and sunshine.

Breaking up the monotony of always being inside is crucial, even if it's just for an hour each day.

"When you're indoors, electronics are always going to be go-tos in a lot of family homes, so try to get outside," McLellan said.

A fun way to enjoy the outdoors can be by simply going to your backyard and doing the same activities you would do inside, like science experiments.

3. Prioritize calming skills

McLellan says tough times like these tend to give children a hard time regulating their emotions.

"Everyone right now is heightened. We're all a little worried and your child is going to pick up on that," she said.

Finding activities that both parents and children find calming, which can range from taking relaxing baths, to singing, practicing breathing or simply talking and make that part of a daily routine. 

4. Don't get too wrapped up in academics

McLellan says activities such as cooking, geocaching and making crafts promote reading, math and fine-motor skills. (David Donnelly/CBC)

While teaching can and should still occur during this time, it doesn't have to be in a rigid or structured way.

"Focus on making it fun and that will keep not just your child engaged, but it will keep you going because doing Grade 7 math for the next few weeks is unappealing to every parent, never mind every child," McLellan said.

Picking activities that both parents and children enjoy that still promote the academics, but not ones that paint parents as a home-school teachers. McLellan says cooking, making crafts or reading a book all develop skills. 

5. Take time off to teach daily living skills

McLellan says oftentimes children who are on the spectrum struggle with daily living skills, such as brushing their teeth, washing their hands or tying their shoes.

"Now, we're home all the time, so we have the time to practice all those things parents do for their children because they're rushing to get them out of the door … Right now, you have nowhere else to be."

During the pandemic, social media has been flooded with images of parents' colour-coded and structured schedules for their children during this time of self-isolation. While these schedules may work for some, these are routines that take time to build. McLellan advises parents not to compare themselves with others. 

"I think we put these high expectations on ourselves that now that we're home we need to use every opportunity we have to teach ... It's too much of an expectation," she said. 

"Set easy, realistic goals for yourself everyday ... If every day is incrementally better than the day before, you're both learning."

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