With schools and child development services closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, families with autistic children face greater challenges, which is coming to light on World Autism Awareness Day, April 2.
Vernon’s seventh annual Autism Awareness Walk in Polson Park has been postponed indefinitely in keeping with restrictions on public gatherings. Vernon’s NONA Child Development Centre has closed its doors to do its part curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Autism Society of BC (AutismBC) has cancelled its community activities until further notice.
These closures add up to a lot more unstructured time for autistic children and individuals, and less support for families and caregivers.
“I hear a lot from other families about what is going on right now,” said Lisa Watson, AutismBC regional coordinator in Kelowna. “Parents are feeling it.”
“Especially for younger kids, if they were doing early intervention with a child development centre, all face-to-face supports have basically ceased.”
Watson knows the challenges parents face, having spoken to many directly as regional coordinator. She also knows from personal experience.
Watson’s 15-year-old autistic son has high sensory needs. He’s accustomed to going to school Monday to Friday and visiting a grandparent every week.
“We can’t do those kinds of activities anymore,” she said. “It’s quite problematic for sure.”
COVID-19 also makes worse the already arduous process of securing an autism assessment. Those waiting on assessments in B.C. face an average wait time of 60.7 weeks under normal circumstances according to the B.C. Autism Assessment Network. With in-person assessments put on hold, the wait time for families becomes indefinite.
The world of COVID-19 is less accommodating of autistic people in ways that can be hard to recognize. For a child with sensory needs, touching is a form of understanding. The imperative to avoid touching objects amid COVID-19 can be a lot more to ask, especially when it applies to most objects in public spaces.
“Even before this happened we’d been dealing with some obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms, and those include him wanting to lick and touch and smell things when we’re out,” Watson said.
“Of course, that is not socially acceptable right now and even before COVID-19, but now it makes taking him anywhere very challenging,” she said, adding she has now limited outings with her son to hikes, drives and outdoor activities such as basketball.
Without systems of support outside the home, Watson says it’s now more important than ever for parents of autistic children to maintain self-care wherever possible.
“Going to school and having those regular activities or therapies was almost a form of respite, so you take that away and now parents are with their kids all of the time and there aren’t any breaks,” Watson said. “Self-care is so important because the burnout factor is so high.”
Watson suggests that parents living in a nuclear family situation take turns giving each other a chance for some alone time. She also stresses the need to maintain personal support networks, whether by phone or through social media.
“I’ve been doing a lot of virtual chats with my friends who have kids on the spectrum,” Watson said. “Even though we’re isolated from being together we can still reach out via social media thank goodness.
“I think for parents it’s important to feel that you’re not alone, there’s a lot of us who are struggling through this right now regardless if we have a kid with a diversibility or not.”
Fortunately, many services are providing online resources to families amid these unprecedented times.
“Even though we can’t do face-to-face meetings anymore, or have the meet-ups that we usually do with AutismBC, there’s still a lot of supports out there if families are in need,” Watson said.
AutismBC has updated its program and will continue to serve the autism community through its online platforms. Follow the organization’s Facebook page for the latest news, discussions and resources. Online workshops, events and fun activities can be found here.
NONA has created a weekly newsletter during its closure filled with activity information, and has also devised a fun scavenger hunt to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day. Those playing along must first search for nine puzzle pieces posted around town.
Autism Community Training has a list of recommendations for the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Social Development to support autistic individuals and their families during COVID-19. Those recommendations can be found here.