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How to Talk to Your Child about Covid

Coping with COVID-19:
A “For-Now” Normal

These are unprecedented times for everyone. We’re all being called upon to use our strengths to overcome big challenges. As part of the autism community, your strengths—among many others—include planning ahead and finding joy and beauty in small moments during uncertain times. You already see the world through a unique lens and you’ve found opportunities that benefit your child even in the most difficult circumstances.

During this COVID-19 crisis your family’s challenges are similar to families with neurotypical children, but they are also unique. However, they are not insurmountable. Many things are unknown and routines will change dramatically for most children, but you already know how to differentiate between the things you can and cannot control. You can adapt your existing routines to make transitions easier, and you can ensure your child’s sense of stability and consistency. You can even create some new routines that are clear, concise, and full of purpose. Either way, you can create a new “for-now” normal to help the whole family through these tough shifts in daily routines.

Explaining COVID-19

Your child may be wondering, “Why is everything so different? Why am I feeling so scared?” They might have heard the words “COVID-19” or “coronavirus” and know that many people are getting sick. Some people in their own lives may be sick. They may or may not know that they can’t go to school or that therapists and other community members that have become part of your family cannot visit for a while.

For children that are verbal, finding out what they already know is an important step in deciding what information to share. To find out, you can ask questions such as:

  • Have you noticed any differences in our lives right now?
  • Do you know anything about what has been happening?
  • What have you heard about what has been happening?
  • Do you know what coronavirus/COVID-19 is?
  • What else do you know about coronavirus/COVID-19?
  • What questions would you like to ask me?

Provide as much reassurance as you can and let them know you’re working hard to keep your whole family healthy. And don’t forget to watch for signs of stress. Children might go back to showing their concerns in times of high anxiety.

For children that are not verbal, it’s best to explain right away the changes they’re experiencing (and, again, look for signs of stress). As a parent of a child with autism, you know that your child shows you, rather than tells you, about their feelings.

For all children, you might say:

  • COVID-19 is a virus. A virus is so small, it’s invisible.
  • It can make some people sick.
  • There are ways to protect everyone:
  • We need to stay home to keep healthy and to help everyone else stay healthy.
  • Some things will stay the same, like eating, getting dressed, and sleeping. But many things will be different.
  • We will not go to school in the same way—we will not go to the school building. Instead, we’ll learn at home, in our new “for-now school.”
  • We can’t go out to do other activities for a while, and we can’t see a lot of people in person for now. Instead, we’ll do more fun activities at home, and we’ll video chat with friends and family.

Keeping What Stays the SameNew Routines for a New Normal

  • Emphasize the things that stay the same by creating a sample schedule or chart (you might draw or write one together) like this one. You might include times:
    • Every day, we will…
      • Eat breakfast.
      • Brush our teeth.
      • Get dressed.
      • Play.
      • Eat lunch.
      • Move our bodies while indoors.
      • Quiet time.
      • Have dinner.
      • Take a bath.
      • Brush our teeth again.
      • Read our favorite books (or another special bedtime routine).
      • Go to sleep.
  • There are healthy habits that we should practice no matter what. Use this chart to make sure your child knows that toothbrushing, sleep, and keeping physically active will continue to be part of his or her routine. You can mark every time you practice these habits to make sure your child has a concrete way of noticing how some things are staying the same.
  • What activities does your child already enjoy that you can easily do on a daily basis? Choose one special, simple routine you can do every day at the same time. Once you’ve done it consistently for a few days, point it out and let your child know you’re trying your best to do this routine every day. Routines might be:
    • Cooking or baking;
    • Music and sing-alongs;
    • Reading;
    • Screen time;
    • Puzzles; and of course,
    • Mealtimes and bath times. 

Introducing and Embracing Change

  • It’s tough to not see loved ones, and it’s more important than ever to keep those social connections despite physical separation. If you haven’t already, set up regular video chats and phone calls with friends and family to stay connected. You might even set up the screen so that you can eat meals with your far-away loved ones as “guests” at your table. You might read a favorite story or play “show and tell” (or “show,” for those children that are non-verbal)—whatever they have to share!
  • Create visuals such as charts to help children understand new routines. Start by creating a new morning routine using this printable. Include children in filling out the chart. Sometimes just seeing you do it first is helpful for children to “preview” what is going to happen.
  • Embracing change is a huge achievement for any child. Make sure you let children know you’re proud of them when they show flexibility: “I am proud of you when you ____. You are being flexible.”
  • Provide alternatives. Changes might feel a tiny bit less daunting when we feel we still have choices. For example, “We cannot go around the block, but we can play in the backyard.” It might not seem like these efforts are making a difference at first, but with time and consistency, they can create an environment where change is easier on everyone.

Take Care!

Last but not least, when you take time for self-care, you’re better able to care for your child.

  • When your little one lays down to rest, has some quiet time, or is busy with an independent activity, try to relax or “do your own thing.”
  • Keep a journal by your bed. Before you fall asleep, remember something funny, kind, or surprising that your child did today. Write a few lines that capture the memory. When you’re feeling down, stressed, or alone, you can read through your memory journal.
  • Get moving. Taking movement breaks throughout the day can help alleviate stress and keep you well. Inside, try a few small-space, body-weight exercises like squats, lunges, arm-raises or yoga.

Major support provided by:

  • American Greetings

Generous support provided by:

  • McCormick Foundation
  • Kristen Rohr