Just so you know, I may earn money or products from the companies mentioned in this post. Links may be affiliate links, which won't cost you anything extra when you purchase. For full affiliate disclosures, click here.
If you’re like me, you may feel like the world turned upside down in the past week. I am grappling with how to do my very interpersonal job – school counseling – through remote means (while simultaneously managing my own high-needs family in person). My social calendar – already limited by our challenges in finding special needs child care – showed cancellation after cancellation. And I’ve found myself having one too many conversations about toilet paper with just about everyone I know.
How to shelter in place with autism
As you press “pause” on almost everything in your, you have begun to grapple with the combination of autism + quarantine. In some ways, we are better prepared than most for this. As I have mentioned before, our radius has shrunk dramatically since an autism diagnosis changed our lives.
In others, we are like an unmoored ship. As we work through this unprecedented challenge, I encourage you to take stock of both the strengths and challenges in your autism family and embrace them all. Just put one foot in front of the other and together we will get through this, separately.
Your schedule just got turned upside down…
For kids who need routine, this is quadruply challenging. B is thrilled to spend hours making up his own schedule – reading, taking an online math class, and playing video games with his friends (incidentally, all things he does on a regular basis, quarantined or not). Mr. Diggy, on the other hand, is used to his team of therapists rotating through our home, his highly structured classroom, and tapping on all sorts of public surfaces is one of his most common stims – it’s how he learns about the world.
You may be more used to staying home than you think:
Between in-home therapies and difficulties finding childcare providers that can handle your child, you may be more used to being at home than you realize. And when you are all home, all day, you can very much be in control of what is often the most challenging part of a special needs day: the transitions. You can ease into them, or adjust them, much more than under ordinary circumstances.
Your child can’t access “tele-health” or “distance learning”:
You are lucky if your kid watches a three minute YouTube video let alone attends to three weeks (or more) of online instruction. So the idea of your kid listening to a therapist who is “in” your phone or tablet may seem far-fetched. (You might actually be surprised by the reality of this – we certainly were.)
Open spaces aren’t quarantined:
Get outside. If you live in a home with a yard, start there. If not, walk around the block. Or go to a park or beach without the temptation of playground surfaces and just run – or bring your own frisbee or ball.
Favorite foods may be out of stock:
At some point, your rigid child may struggle with a shortage of a favorite food or drink option. This will be challenging, but it can be a tool for inching toward more food flexibility. And in the end, water and salt are enough for humans to survive for longer than you think. During a recent stomach bug (ah, January, when a stomach bug was a “health crisis”!), Mr. Diggy subsisted for days on watered- down juice and licking the salt off some chips.
Go “shopping” at home:
Turn your pantry inside out and pop some popcorn or make a soup. Use whatever flour you have on hand (corn, wheat, coconut, etc) to make some tortillas. Consider what’s in your yard (maybe your kid will eat whole lemons, like mine?) – or what you can plant – we are going to try planting some sprouting potatoes to see what happens!
Lack of access to typical playgrounds and other equipment:
As gyms and other facilities close, and playgrounds are necessarily avoided, you may find that your child is having difficulty meeting his or her sensory needs. But as you shelter in place with autism, you might have some simple, surprising items in your home already.
Rethink household items:
You may have found that your autism family doesn’t define “toy” or “game” in quite the same way as a typical family. There tends to be a lot of truth beyond the idea that many autistic individuals appreciate the wrapping (oh, the curly ribbons!) to what’s inside. There is also often a need for durability that outstrips that of your average toy. Here are few of our favorite “accidental” toys:
Strainer – these come in all shapes and sizes; this clip-on style is the one I reach for most often, and thus the one that is most easily grabbed by Mr. Diggy. The smooth, brightly colored plastic is appealing enough for him, but you can also use it in dirt, sand or water.
Soft garden hose – designed as a space-saver, these hoses are light-weight, flexible, and fairly durable. Plus they make great transverse waves when you fling them around, but they are less likely to cause damage to other things than a more traditional, heavier hose.
Whisk – If you have several whisks in your kitchen, you may want to designate one to “sacrifice” for the cause of sensory exploration. Mr. Diggy has actually gone through several, but the enjoyment and satisfaction is worth the few dollars to buy him another inexpensive one.
Laundry basket/bucket – Sit in it. Stand in it. Put it over your head. Turn it upside and use it as a “cage” for stuffed animals or other toys. And if it’s solid-sided like a bucket, then it likely makes a great drum.
Blanket – Mr. Diggy has a preference for super-fluffy ones, but blankets of all shapes and sizes can be used to make forts, divide rooms, and just generally bring comfort.
It is hard to shelter in place with autism. But it is worth it for the public health consequences. Just remember that we are all in this together, separately.