As we settle into the new reality that the novel coronavirus has gifted us, two things have become abundantly clear: the situation is constantly changing and there is no one “right” way to do this as a parent. Whether you are one of the essential workers risking it in groups every day, working remotely with kids who think every Zoom meeting is an audition for “America’s Got Talent,” or a stay-at-home parent who is juggling a full household, you’re probably finding the current change of events quite stressful — whether or not you have kids on the autism spectrum.
If there is one thing that we at Exceptional Minds understand well, it is change. We have spent the last decade preparing adults on the autism spectrum for work in one of the most competitive industries in the world: entertainment. In the fields of animation, visual effects, motion graphics or adapting to the exploding gaming industry, we have spent our time training our students for change. Changes in workflows, software, jobs, studios, or even a fundamental transformation of the industry landscape for which they have been preparing (i.e. virtual reality); we plan for uncertainty. COVID-19 has created a similar kind of uncertainty that we all now face and we at Exceptional Minds feel we have some insight on how to handle it.
Do what works
Exceptional Minds has molded itself around the natural science of behavior and a philosophy of functionalism. Essentially, we are committed to what works. We take the idiographic approach: when you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism. We focus on the individual skills and needs to create success. By the way, this approach is extremely effective whether you have autism or not.
So, let’s start with ‘you do you.’ Much of the advice surrounding school closures is to convert your home into the school your child(ren) attend and play teacher as if you don’t have anything else to do. This is good advice presuming it’s a brief period of closure. That is not most parents’ reality as they need to maintain their jobs, keep a roof over their heads and to put food on the table. It is certainly not the currently reality of COVID-19. So, you do what works for you. I suspect that isn’t teaching math during period 3 instead of managing your staff or doing the laundry. You need to recognize that this has been as disruptive to your schedule as it has been to your child’s. Prioritize in a way that balances your and their needs, but most importantly don’t beat yourself up about it. Just do what your values dictate, not what society does.
Schedule: Have one
The thing being echoed most is the need for schedules and routines. Maintain old routines, create new ones, post them, keep them. Whatever you do, have a schedule. The reason that this comes up so much is because behavior, autistic or not, runs on schedules. B.F. Skinner, the founder of behavior analysis, wrote that schedules direct the persistence and patterning of all behavior, they contrive motivation and their significance cannot be overestimated. So, have a schedule, but have one that makes sense.
Have your kids do work before play. Incorporate checklists, timers and calendars because they enhance the legitimacy of your words and actions and likely increase your child’s compliance. They will bring a sense of normalcy and accomplishment to your and your child’s day, which is something we are currently desperate for.
Even so, give your child a sense of control and build in electives. Work on flexibility by scheduling wild-card activities. Most of all, remember that your schedule is only useful if it is followed. So, if you are working from home and you are having to constantly transition from home life to work life, create boundaries (e.g. knocking before entering) and rehearse signals (e.g. time-out hand signal while your boss is on the phone) for those changes so they are clear to your child.
Also, build in some flexibility. Understand that you aren’t running a school. Because you know your child, maybe an hour can substitute for a day of instruction. If it doesn’t, then recognize that you have solidarity with parents across the globe, as almost no kids anywhere are finishing a full year of school.
Play to your and their strengths
This is the autism specific portion of my advice. Those on the spectrum have unique behavioral challenges and needs, so play to those. At Exceptional Minds we feel that one of the primary autistic traits is rule-governed behavior. This creates difficulties with flexibility, but if you write the right rules, then you might get a seamless transition to this new reality. Create firm rules that change infrequently (e.g. hand washing, face touching, physical distancing, etc.) and for the rest, build flexibility into the rule (e.g. ‘we stick to the schedule, except when Daddy’s boss says otherwise’).
Recognize that the social interaction needs may be less, that the screen time may be more, and that may play to your needs to keep your job and the family running. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of this. Establish rules that focus on acceptance of the situation in place of raging against the new reality.
Lastly, keep your eye on the future
Lean in to the anxiety and uncertainty, because it is here now, but it won’t be forever. This will end. We have summer to look forward to, which hopefully is focused more on drinking Corona than avoiding people who have it. Exceptional Minds is running its summer workshops as planned. There will be day-camp and even the coveted sleep-away camp. Don’t put the burden of the post-virus future on you. This generation is not likely to be defined by COVID-19 in the way that others were by World War II or Vietnam. Even if you mess this up, take reassurance in the fact that the youth are resilient, even if today, you’re not sure you are.
Benjamin Maixner, MA, ABA, BCBA, is the Director of Programs for Exceptional Minds and TEDx Speaker. He is currently working from home along with his wife and two daughters, ages 2 and 5. Exceptional Minds is hosting Summer Workshops. Exceptional Minds is a nonprofit school and studio preparing individuals for careers in the digital arts. This National Autism Awareness Month adds new and unexpected challenges for the nonprofit due to the current global shared experience. Visit Exceptional Minds for information and if you can, help preserve this unique program for future generations.