by Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Strategic Advisor, LEARN Behavioral
If the last 16 months have taught us anything, it’s that the only constant in life with COVID-19 is change. And while the persistent evolution of information and safety protocols has left many with a severe case of whiplash, its impact on children has been even more profound—particularly for those with autism. Now, as more Americans receive their vaccinations, and more of the country begins gradually reopening, our children are set to face yet another daunting upheaval: returning to normal life, or adapting to a “new normal.”
This will be easier said than done, however. Depression and anxiety among children have skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic, and the prospect of reentering a “normal” society will do little in the way of alleviating that anguish. For children with autism, the sudden reentry into everyday socialization may seem downright terrifying. Children are incredibly resilient by nature, but as we begin to take these first baby steps back toward the lives we used to know, it’s imperative to remember that when it comes to our children’s mental well-being, they’re not out of the woods just yet.
What follows are some strategies you can use to help ease your child into a post-pandemic life.
Structure, Schedules, and Routines
It’s not an overstatement to say that COVID-19 took a wrecking ball to the structure, routines, and cues children had spent a lifetime developing. Activities like school, sports, and outdoor playtime were forced to take a back seat, in favor of safer but more sedentary options like TV, gaming, and, hopefully, reading. And while many parents will feel a natural urge to thrust their children back into the recreational activities they enjoyed pre-pandemic, it will be important not to throw them into the deep end before they feel ready. This is especially true for children on the autism spectrum, who can feel overwhelmed by sudden, unexpected change.
How, then, can you help your child adjust to our sudden “new normal”? Start small. Try reestablishing daily and weekly household routines, such as mealtimes, cleaning schedules, and, of course, play time. Planning small outings to places like a local park will not only help get kids out of the house but also help refamiliarize them with learned social concepts in a comfortable, low-stress environment.
Communicate with Your Kids
Some children will initially feel reticent to exit the cozy, slower-paced lifestyles they’d grown accustomed to over the last 16 months. Others may feel anxious to reengage with high-stress social environments after a year of isolation. Understanding what your child is feeling will be crucial. For children living with depression, anxiety, or autism, too much, too fast, too soon may only worsen their anxiety.
Make it a point to have regular conversations with your child about their mental health space, and what activities they might feel comfortable, or uncomfortable, participating in. This will help foster a relationship of mutual trust and understanding, and provide your child with a sense of agency they may have been lacking over the previous year.
Be Aware of Emotional Cues
No matter your child’s age, it’s possible the pandemic has left traumatic effects on their mental well-being. Recognizing your child’s emotional cues will help you better understand what is causing their distress.
It’s natural to feel stress when adapting to a new environment, and some children may show common signs, including changes in appetite and sleep, or increases in behavioral issues. However, if you believe these sustained symptoms are beginning to affect your child’s mental health, it’s essential you contact a health professional. This is particularly crucial for children with autism, who can struggle to effectively communicate their feelings. If you find it difficult to understand the emotional cues of your child, it’s better to consult a psychologist or other professional to help find ways you and your child can overcome this stressful time.
For more on helping kids with autism manage stress, read “How to Support Kids with Anxiety or Depression.”