Child development expert offers tips for parents of children with autism whose lives have been upended by the pandemic

Photo of Anson Koshy, MD, a child development specialist, interacting with a patient. (Photo by Felix Sanchez)

Anson Koshy, MD, a child development specialist, interacting with a patient. (Photo by Felix Sanchez)

Over a year has passed since the COVID-19 global pandemic was declared, bringing changes to almost every aspect of daily life. For some parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the disruption to routine brought on by this public health crisis has been an added source of stress for their families.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 54 children have ASD. It is a developmental disorder that can cause major social, behavioral, and communication challenges and it affects each person uniquely. Many children with ASD prefer to follow strict routines in their daily lives, and they may display behavioral issues if there is disruption.

“Many parents are concerned because they see their child presenting new behavior that they didn’t display this time last year. It’s important for parents to know that just because you’re seeing some behavioral issues in your child now, it could be due to the changes we’ve all experienced this last year, so don’t assume right away that it’s a regression,” said Anson Koshy, MD, MBE, assistant professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “Parents should first ask themselves, are you stressed? Probably, and that is normal. So do we think maybe your kids are stressed too?”

For parents who are still in virtual learning mode, Koshy said that one way to maintain a semblance of normality is simply embracing a routine at mealtime. Having a set time to eat each day helps provide structure. All children thrive with predictability and routine.

If your child has returned to the classroom and is doing well in school, but struggling with behavioral issues at home, Koshy said to not worry just yet.

“The structure the school day provides is very beneficial and if your child is doing well in that environment, it’s not immediately a cause for concern if they are acting up at home. It’s important to remember we’re all more relaxed at home, even us grown-ups,” said Koshy, who holds the Raghuthaman Family Professorship in Pediatric Neurology and Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “However, if your child is struggling in the classroom, consider reaching out to their special education coordinator and requesting additional information about the triggers and consequences for those behaviors in school, or a functional behavior analysis.”

For parents gearing up for a return to the classroom in the fall, now is the time to start practicing wearing a face covering if the school will require one. Also, consider visiting the classroom to take some photos of your child’s teacher and classroom prior to the school year starting. By providing your child with visuals and explaining this is where they will be attending class throughout the week, it will help with the big transition from spending much of their time at home to a more structured social setting.

For parents concerned about a lack of socialization during the last year and who are comfortable with resuming outdoor playdates with those outside of their immediate bubble, this can help their child rehearse the shift to a new social setting prior to the start of the school year. “As more adults are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months, this may be an option parents are more comfortable with compared to last summer,” said Koshy, who also sees patients at the UT Physicians Pediatric Center for Autism and Related Conditions at the Children’s Learning Institute.

Acknowledging that the last year has been very tough for so many people, Koshy also said that it has also been an opportunity for those outside of the autism community to better understand the challenges individuals with ASD experience in their day-to-day lives.

“Everyone had their routines change and everyone was not okay with it,” he said. “This last year was a teachable moment for us without autism to see that we all thrive with structure, even if we don’t always acknowledge it.”

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Written by: Wendi Hawthorne | Updated: March 30, 2021