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How to Talk to Your Child with Autism About the Coronavirus

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How to Talk to Your Child with Autism About the Coronavirus

March 24, 2020 | Niki Mostadim, PsyD

If you feel like the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has hit hard and unexpectedly, you’re not alone. Everyone is having to adjust quickly to a new “unnormal normal” life that is aligned with changing and evolving recommendations and restrictions. This is especially true with the “stay at home” order issued by Governor Gavin Newsom late last week.

For parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities, talking to kids can be a challenge. With schools closed and so many activities cancelled, helping children adjust to new routines can also be difficult. But with a little forethought about how you want to handle the situation, it can be done.

So how do you talk to your child about the coronavirus? Consider these tips:

  • Before talking to a child about the virus, determine what the child knows and understands already about the situation. Do they know there is a public health crisis going on? Do they understand why they are home from school? Are they bothered by the routine change or not really?
  • If they don’t seem to notice or care too much, they probably don’t need to know as much information, at least not right away. On the other hand, if they are aware of what’s happening and seem upset or afraid, more information should probably be communicated. Continually monitor your child’s awareness level because awareness may change as the days go by and kids may seek more reassurance and information from parents over time. If this is the case, be sensitive to your child’s needs and provide them with the reassurance and information they need.
  • It’s a parenting decision to determine how much information to share. It’s important to be honest and truthful, but kids should not be panicked unnecessarily. Only the parent or other caregiver has some understanding of how the child reacts to trauma, whether it’s a natural disaster or death in the family, and thus how they are likely to react to information about the new virus.
  • Either way, be calm when talking to your child. If you’re calm, they’ll take that as a sign that they should be calm, too, and that “We are the boss of the virus, not the other way around!” This also will reassure the child that you are there for them and are doing everything you can to ensure their health and safety. Another way to reduce stress in the house is to limit exposure to the news, which can heighten anxiety.
  • If you choose to share more information, you could describe the virus as a really bad and highly contagious flu. While we know this isn’t exactly the case, it’s a good analogy to help your child understand what is happening. They’ve probably heard of the flu and may have even had the flu, and they may understand that some people die from flu every year while most do not.
  • Regardless of what you choose to disclose, make the child aware of the personal health and hygiene habits that are important to practice now to keep the virus from spreading. This includes washing their hands really well and keeping a “social distance” of about six feet from other people – be it in the home or out in the community.
  • If the child is struggling to adjust to a change in their routine, help them visualize a new routine. One way is to draw a calendar (a schedule) to show them what the day will look like now, so the child can understand and begin to embrace the new routine. That said, it’s wise to maintain as many elements of the “old” routine as possible, perhaps by waking up, having breakfast and going to bed at the same times now as before – which also will make it easier to adjust back to the old routine when school and other activities of daily living resume. The goal is to make the new routine seem normal – no matter how it may have changed – so the child can adjust with as little stress as possible.

Part of maintaining your child’s routine is continuing their ABA-based behavioral treatment program. We know that continuity of care is essential to the success of your child’s therapy, and your child’s program is considered to be an essential and necessary healthcare service.

Many service providers are still offering these important services. Continuing with your child’s sessions and taking advantage of the knowledge and expertise of your skilled ABA-focused service providers may even help your child adjust to all the changes they are experiencing. If you aren’t comfortable continuing sessions in your own home, some service providers are expanding access to services through telehealth.

If you would like to learn more about how our skilled professionals can continue to help you through these uncertain times – including whether telehealth-based sessions could be an option for you – please call our Telehealth Hotline at 818.474.1514 or Schedule a Consultation to request a complimentary 30-minute phone conversation to discuss your specific situation.

About the Author

Dr. Mostadim earned her doctoral degree in applied clinical psychology, and her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has an extensive background in psychodiagnostics testing and has been working with children and adults with autism for over 10 years. To Dr. Mostadim, there’s nothing more important than being able to work with families and children with special needs because it allows her to grow tremendously in all aspects of her life.

Dr.-Niki-Mostadim
Dr. Niki Mostadim, PsyD

Regional Director of Clinical Services
California Psychcare

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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) / Behavioral Therapy – Home Based

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, refers to a variety of treatment options that are based on the principles of behavior analysis. ABA uses scientifically-based techniques for understanding and changing behavior, and is the most widely accepted approach to assess and intervene with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental challenges or delays. This type of therapy is conducted one-on-one, is customized for each person, and is appropriate for individuals of all ages.

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