How to cope with disrupted family routines during COVID-19

March 20, 2020

For one-on-one help and guidance, please contact our Autism Response Team at 888-AUTISM2 or help@autismspeaks.org

Llame a nuestro Autism Response Team en Español: 1-888-772-9050 o envíe un correo electrónico a help@autismspeaks.org

School closures are now widespread as part of the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While these are critical steps to protect the health of Americans, the disruption in routine for children with autism or special needs can be incredibly hard.  

Long-term changes to daily schedules can mean a loss of skills they may have gained during school programming or lead to increased anxiety and problem behaviors. In addition, parents who are also at home unexpectedly and juggling work with home life have fewer options to balance all these demands. 

To help your family cope with these significant disruptions and ease the related challenges, experts suggest developing a modified version of your child’s typical school routine that you adapt to your home environment. The routine should also consider the other demands on caregivers/parents, siblings or other family members, and self-care. A balance of structured activities is ideal along with setting the expectation of what happens next. You can use a visual schedule to support children with communication needs.  

Start with your child’s typical school schedule. Start with the first period or subject of the day, and structure an at-home “school day” routine that follows the subjects and activities that your child typically does in their school and classroom. For example, if their day typically starts with writing and moves on to science, gym, lunch, recess, math, snack and ends with music, you can loosely structure at-home learning activities in this order. 

Build in extra time for physical activity. Include gross motor activities to encourage both physical and mental well-being. You can also use this time for family connection by doing activities outside together – such as a walk or bike ride around the neighborhood while practicing social distancing, or an at-home workout (search YouTube for family-friendly workouts and yoga classes) – and modeling a habit of regular daily exercise.  

Get plenty of time outside and family-based social activities. In addition to exercise, you can: 

  • Set up a treasure hunt in the yard 

  • Play “I Spy” while you walk or work outside 

  • Decorate your outdoor entry or walkway with sidewalk chalk 

We encourage you to visit our Facebook and Instagram channels, where we will regularly share the ideas we’re hearing from throughout the community.  

Include your child in household chores to encourage progress in daily living skills. This may be an opportunity to take advantage of extra time at home together, where you can demonstrate and teach more independent living skills and offer abundant praise and reinforcement for successes. 

Use visual supports to communicate the new routine. Ask your child’s teachers or service providers for the tools they use at school so that you can re-create them at home.  

Email or call your child’s teachers and service providers to help you get set up initially and to develop a long-term plan for implementing techniques or working toward goals at home. They may be able to offer a web-based video training session, and recurring visits to check in if you need them.  

Once your school day routine is in place, make a weekly plan for the family. This should also include a visual schedule your child can follow. When everyone is home indefinitely, understanding more concretely which days are “learning” days rather than “family” days can help decrease anxiety and give children a sense of order. Maintaining a regular schedule during the closure will also make it easier for your child to transition back to school when it re-opens. 

Include self-care as part of your day. Juggling the demands of remote work or lack of employment, distance learning, childcare and managing a household can quickly affect your mental and physical health, and in turn the social dynamics of your family. Schedule time each day to do something that recharges you: meditation or prayer, reading a book for pleasure, engaging in a favorite hobby or another activity that helps you feel better. In addition, try to get regular and adequate sleep. Fatigue can increase stress and risk for other negative outcomes. 

Try to be patient and realistic as you adopt a new schedule. Getting consistent with a new routine, particularly when things are quickly changing day-to-day, means things won’t be perfect. Start small, with more loose structure, if that feels less overwhelming. Involve your children in planning for their learning and the work of the family. That may help them cope better if things change over time. And, remember to schedule breaks – for everyone – throughout your day. 

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You can also reach the Autism Response Team by phone or email: 888-288-4762, en Espanol 888-772-7050, or help@autismspeaks.org.