Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Isolation

Many families have had their children return to Term 2 this week in a way we never imaged… Remote learning. What an extraordinary effort by all our educators (and staff) to pull this all together in such a short timeframe! Is it perfect? Of course not. But is life ever perfect? The key thing to keep in mind is that our kids are still learning!

I am very fortunate to have two girls that are pretty ‘self-sufficient’. We obviously still talk every day about what classes they have on, what assessments they have to complete, what they are finding tricky. But on the whole, they complete their online learning themselves. This allows me to be home with them but to also continue to work (as I am also very fortunate to still have a job during these times). I have never been prouder of my girls and how hard they are working and adapting to this new way of learning. Well done to their schools for being so encouraging and supportive.

But what about a 5-year ASD child who now has to undertake his therapies online and in isolation? Please let me start by saying, I am in no way undermining how difficult families are doing it at the moment, and I’m not saying we have it harder than anyone else. I am definitely not saying that at all.  And I take my hat off to educators and therapists who have thrown themselves into these challenging times to offer solutions to families to put our own fears and stresses at ease to ensure our children keep developing – in whatever way that looks like.

We know that early intervention for ASD is critical. So many programs and government assistance packages focus on assistance they can offer families in the early years (some might say to the detriment of older children/adult, but that’s a conversation for another day), to ensure our children are ready for school. In mainstream schools where possible, but for an education in any event whether it’s at a special school or home learning.

So, what do you do when you have spent two and a half years of therapy to have your child understand social skills and then you have to say, “Well, now you can’t interact with your friends at kindergarten for a term”? Yes, we will all come out of this and return to normal (whatever our new normal looks like). But the gap to an ASD child cannot be undermined. Again, I am not saying the effects on other children and adults is less important, but this article is simply focussing on the efforts Jayden’s therapists have gone to during these times.

So normally, every week, Jayden would attend speech therapy, occupational therapy and social skills therapy group. “What for?” you might ask, well here’s a snippet:

  • Speech Therapy: Jayden has been attending speech therapy since he was two. At first, we thought he would never talk. Then we thought he couldn’t put words together. Well, he proved us wrong (some days now we wonder whether he will ever be quiet!). Now he works very hard at speech therapy to bring it all together by focusing on comprehension and articulation.
  • Occupational Therapy: Jayden has been attending occupational therapy since he was three. Jayden works very hard with predominately fine motor skill tasks. For example, how to hold cutlery; how to hold a pencil; how to hold scissors and have enough strength to cut.
  • Social Skills Group: Jayden has been attending social skills group since he was four years old as he needed assistance to learn how to cope in a social setting such as kinder. This therapy teaches Jayden to play with other children; to take turns; follow instructions; be in a classroom environment.

In addition to these therapies there are three days of kindergarten and weekly one-on-one swimming lessons.

So, what happens when everything shuts its doors due to COVID-19? How do we ensure that our efforts with all these therapies is not lost? Whilst a ‘term off’ for some children may not sound like a lot of time, it is detrimental to Jayden who only learns through repetition. If we do something a certain way, even just a couple of times, it becomes his new norm. We then need to put so much effort into explaining why we can’t do something that way anymore. We create a visual schedule to assist him to understand how his day now looks different, but adapting does not come naturally to Jayden.

So again, a massive thank you to Jayden’s therapists who have worked tirelessly to ensure therapies can continue during this time. How does this work? Online – just like the schools. Yes, it involves either myself or my husband needing to sit with him, but they have been so creative to develop fun tasks so Jayden is engaged. You can’t teach Jayden to simply sit in front of a computer and hold cutlery but you can ask him to get an ice tray and fill up a cup of water and whilst holding a spoon properly fill up the ice tray with water. Water play is always fun!  And then the therapist will guide us on how to correct his grip and elbow position whilst he is playing with water.    

But how do you teach social skills whilst being in isolation? That is the big challenge we are all faced with. Social skills group has been shut down and not offered online. Kinders have only a handful of children attending, but the activities are very different –

  • As a parent you cannot walk your child into the Centre anymore;
  • Children have their temperature taken at the gate before entry and then throughout the day;
  • Many activities that the children love will not be offered such as home corner, cooking experiences, and most importantly sensory activities (such as play-dough) due to the increased risk of spreading the virus;
  • Other activities will be modified so there are fewer items (such as fewer blocks; climbing frames);
  • More time outside (which is not a bad thing, until we get closer to winter).

For families who elect to send their children to kindergarten (in the new environment identified above), there may only a handful of children, with sessions shorter or less days. For families who elect to keep their children at home, they receive a home learning pack and have some online sessions. Which is great, but does not provide the same level of social interaction as 15 hours of kindergarten.

As parents, my husband and I made the very conscious decision to keep Jayden back to repeat another year of kindergarten, so he can continue to work on his social skills to be better prepared for school in 2021. But now…. We just hope the time away from all his critical social interaction does not hinder all his hard work for the last two or so years.  I guess many parents have this fear about their children’s wellness and education – whether ASD or not.

As always, we will stick tight as a family and work through these next set of challenges together.

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