Over the course of the past week, our lives have changed rapidly. Here in Illinois, as in many states, we are formally following Shelter in Place. ABA therapy is medically necessary for children with autism and ABA therapists are categorized as essential workers. That being said, we gave our families and staff the option to pause services or work until the Shelter in Place lifts on April 7th in Illinois. We gave the same option to our Colorado families. There are still families receiving services and staff working, but we have more families currently on pause than those continuing with ABA therapy (as a personal choice). As a clinician and mama who is now going on week 2 home with my own children, I know how hard it can be. This week I’d like to provide some insight on simple tips for children with autism who are at home without their usual support team.
Tip #1: Make a Daily Routine
I know that this tip sounds simple. I’ve even seen this tip on several parenting sites not specifically meant for children with autism. Having a daily routine during a time when life feels uncertain can be comforting. It’s also an easy way to ensure you are doing what’s important for you and your children every day.
For children with autism, routine has been, and will be, important beyond the COVID-19 outbreak. People who have autism often think in patterns and sequences. Life itself is one big pattern! To a person with autism, knowing what comes next can bring down anxiety levels. If anxiety is low, problem behaviors surrounding a change in the routine (the next task on the schedule) are less likely. The more predictable you can make each day for your child with autism, the calmer they are most likely to feel.
Tip #2: Single Task
I’ve mentioned this before, but in “How Not to Lose Your Shit with Your Kids,” single tasking is brought up A LOT. Maybe after COVID-19 the book will be a New York Times best seller! Just kidding. But in all seriousness, if, while you are implementing your child’s (or children’s) daily schedule, you are trying to multitask you are setting yourself up for failure. Single tasking is just what it sounds like. Do one thing at a time.
With millions of us now working from home, while our littles are there as well, I know what a large feat this is. You are trying to work and keep your children happy, which is multitasking in itself!
How I’ve personally tackled this is by setting up my children’s schedule (minus naps & food) around my day. What this can look like is taking breaks from work to transition your children through their schedule. It may look like cutting yourself some slack and when you really need to work. Things like putting a movie on or setting up play time that you don’t need to be involved in may seem like sub optimal parenting. While I know the mom guilt can be real, knowing our own boundaries makes for a calmer house. Do one thing at a time the best you can to keep your nervous system at bay. If you do lose your shit, go ahead and give yourself a great big mental hug. It’s OK, we’re all struggling.
Tip #3: Choose Small Goals
I learned this tip working with children with autism well over a decade ago. I was working with a boy with autism back in Ohio and he had a goal to learn to shower independently. In order to learn the full task of showering we broke the skill of showering into small steps. The goal was broken down into steps like taking clothes off, turning on the water, checking the temperature, and so on so forth. The whole process was over 25 steps! We taught one step at time and, in time, he learned to shower by himself. In ABA we do this for all our clients in their programming.
While you’re home with your child with autism, pick a few goals that are really important to you–ones that will bring pride or joy to your child. These goals can be new communication (pick 2-3 words/signs, communication cards), play goals with siblings, play goals alone, eating goals, or self care. Think about things you’d like your child to be able to do. Observe your child and write down all the steps they would need to know in order to accomplish the full goal. From there, you’ll pick the first step of the goal. Teach, teach, teach until that first step is learned. After you see success on the first step, move to the next. You may not get to the full goal by the end of Shelter in Place but your child will be learning!
Tip #4: Celebrate Success
It’s so easy to become frustrated with each other during Shelter in Place. I mean, we’ve all seen the Shining… Staying in place can be filled with wonderful family moments, as well as some pretty real human moments. To help your child with autism know what they are doing well, make it a point to praise them! Try to find 10 positives a day to praise your child. Knowing that they are doing something correctly gives your child the confidence to continue their positive behaviors. And hey, while you’re at it, maybe thank your husband or wife for dumping clothes in the hamper not the floor.
Tip #5: Remember Functions of Behavior
Over the course of the winter, I wrote about the functions of behavior. I explained how everything happens for a reason and how in ABA we use four categories to explain why behavior happens. These categories are attention, escape, access to tangibles/activities, and automatic. During your time at home with your child, if a problem behavior occurs start to observe it the best you can to find the function. Here’s a quick guide:
- Attention: Parent is busy-problem behavior occurs, parent provides either positive or negative attention
- Escape: Parent requests-behavior occurs, parent removes demand
- Access: Child requests an item or activity-behavior occurs, parent gives access
- Automatic: this one is complicated, please reference my previous blog here
Once you notice what your child wants with their tantrums or problem behavior, it’s important to do two things. First, try to be preventative and fill them up with what they want before the behavior occurs, when feasible (for escape this is lots of breaks/attention & access is self-explainable). Then, if the problem behavior still occurs, do not give your child the consequence they are seeking. You don’t want to reinforce bad behavior. Stay consistent and sooner, rather than later, your child will realize the behavior isn’t working and it will go down. Also, remember to teach language skills to help your child request their needs more safely!
Tip #6: Give Yourself a Break
Life is disrupted for pretty much everyone right now. It’s easy to start your day with a plan only to have that plan change–sometimes only minutes into the day! It could be from work, your child’s particular mood at the moment, or that you yourself are just having a bad day. Try hard not to judge yourself and instead provide grace. Say kind things to yourself when you’re struggling and make sure you’re carving breaks out for yourself. These should be things you love to do. Mine look like naps, a kid-free hour, and running. If I’m overwhelmed I look to when I can schedule a me moment in. I hope you can too.