We’re all aware of the adjustments children have had to make during the pandemic—wearing masks, schooling from home, and social distancing, for instance—but what we might not always realize is the immense impact on children with special needs. As COVID restrictions are finally lifting, families of children with special needs can breathe a sigh of relief.
All children with special needs have unique challenges, but those with autism need a consistent routine. According to Kate Schwartz, Executive Director of the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio, COVID resulted in routines being altered. With less opportunities for children with autism to go to school or go out, there were less opportunities for them to use social skills that they likely had been developing. As autism is a social communication disorder, social skills are very important to practice and develop for children with autism. Due to the lack of opportunities to practice social skills, a loss in that area—or regression—has been the result for many children.
Another major challenge for children with autism during COVID was online learning. Every child learns differently, so meeting over Zoom made it difficult for those needs to be met. And for children with autism, the supervised learning, hand-over-hand ability assistance, and manipulatives for learning that help immensely in the classroom were not really possible. There were also a lot of unknowns with online learning, and for children with autism, not having a sense of what might happen next can lead to anxiety.
When it came to masks, Schwartz explained that people with autism “have a heightened sensory system, so wearing something extra that touched the face and ears was simply too much on their sensory systems. The tug on the ears to keep the masks secure could be magnified in a person with autism.” So while most people did not enjoy wearing masks, it was even more uncomfortable for individuals with autism.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with the family of a child with autism about their experience going through COVID. Lisa Rozanski and her husband Scott are the parents of seven-year-old Eli, a child with special needs. In an interview with Lisa, she explained that Eli is both on the autism spectrum and nonverbal. She described Eli as a “very happy, lovable little boy. Everyone who meets him falls in love with him. He hugs with all his might…he touches everyone he meets. It’s awesome to watch.” Even so, Lisa noticed the stress that the pandemic brought to her child.
For most children with special needs, not only is it very important to have a routine and to be consistent with it, but it is also important to have an outlet to release energy and emotions. Doing this in a way that is sensitive to sensory issues is also crucial. Unfortunately, during COVID, routines changed drastically and some of those typical outlets were no longer available.
Prior to COVID, Eli was used to going to school, visiting his grandparents, playing in the park during the warmer months, and visiting fun indoor activities like SkyZone during the winter. Many of these activities were suddenly unavailable during COVID; even if they were still accessible, they required children to wear masks, a very difficult feat for Eli.
Eli has always had problems with wearing additional clothing like gloves, hats, or sunglasses, so having a required mask mandate made it even tougher for the family to get out of the house, as most places required school-aged kids to wear masks. This led the family to spend a lot of time at home, where Eli enjoyed playing on his swing in the backyard, jumping on his indoor trampoline, sitting in his indoor sensory swing, building blanket forts, and working on school activities throughout the day.
School routines shattered
Like all schools in the spring of 2020, Eli’s school, a school for children with special needs, was closed down. Lisa explained that Eli “was used to a routine every day and going to school with friends, but then he was separated from them.”
For Eli, it was difficult not to be in school. He didn’t grasp the idea of FaceTime or Zoom, so his interaction with other kids was limited during the school closure. “It was just a battle,” said Lisa. “At one point, we had to talk to some of the administration about why we felt like our kids needed to come back.” Lisa faced some pushback and judgment from others who were concerned it was too dangerous to send children back to school, “but being back in school was what was best for [Eli],” she said.
The school did eventually open back up for in-person instruction in the fall, but it was on a half-day schedule with a lot of strict rules. Naturally, if a student were to test positive for COVID, the school would move to remote learning for two weeks. The lack of consistency made it really difficult for Eli and other children with special needs. Lisa explained that he became very stressed, causing his behavior to change when he couldn’t communicate how he was feeling. Using sign language or a talker on his iPad, he would often tell his parents, “I want to go in the car.” He was very eager to go back to school, or even to leave the house at all.
When Eli attended school in-person, Lisa praised the teachers and staff for keeping the facilities clean and sanitized, while also helping the kids learn to wear masks. “It’s amazing! A lot of the educators with special needs kids really stepped up to the plate, just like the caregivers and nurses who have been called heroes,” she said.
Transitioning from COVID
Fortunately, it is looking like the 2021-2022 school year will regain some normalcy, which will help alleviate the stress that children like Eli and their families were feeling during the pandemic. However, Kate Schwartz explained that just like the transition to safely staying home was difficult, the transition for children with autism back to going out could also be difficult as it is yet another change to routine.
Schwartz suggested starting slowly with the transition. “Start smaller transitions back into the world. Lower expectations of what needs to be accomplished per day,” she stated. She also suggested that parents prepare and practice a script in case of meltdowns. Something simple like “My child has autism. COVID has been hard. Thanks for your understanding,” could do the trick.
While COVID hasn’t been easy for any of us, those living with autism have had an especially tough time. It will be a difficult transition back to school, camps, after school programs, or even something as mundane as going to the grocery store, making it more important than ever to practice empathy and understanding toward these kids. Even so, the lifting of mask mandates has undoubtedly made a huge difference for these families to reclaim the ability to engage with the outside world.
For families of a child with autism, Lisa Rozanski recommended Acoustics for Autism, particularly their Project iAM which helps grant scholarships to families for therapies, sensory activities, and more.