DR RADICA MAHASE
“My son is 15 years old. For the past ten years, since he has been diagnosed with autism, we have tried to give him everything he needs for his development. Both my wife and I have good enough jobs so we can afford to send him to a private school for children with disabilities and he goes to different therapy sessions as well.
We went through some rough patches with him like when he hit puberty a couple of years ago. That was probably the worst as he used to get meltdowns all the time. Thankfully, we were able to figure out how to help him as much as possible and his therapists really worked hard to get him to manage his emotions, to self-regulate so that the meltdowns were less frequent.
And then covid19 came and now we feel like everything he has accomplished is all gone. The teenager in front of us today is such a different teenager. Zayne used to sit and do his schoolwork, he would help his mom in the kitchen, and he was always active. Sometimes he would struggle with some things, for example he just never likes to write but that was okay, he would still try. He was still interested in doing things. But by three weeks after schools closed he was refusing to do anything. He starting throwing tantrums and when we tried to reason with him he would lock himself in his room.
When we did get him to sit and try some of the work that the school sent him, it was almost like he forgot everything he learnt. He started having problems sleeping and he couldn’t sit still for more than 15 minutes. But what scared us the most was the fact that he forgot so many things he had learnt over the past years. It was like we were teaching him basic things all over again. He didn’t just stop developing; he went back to the development level he was at a few years ago.”
Zayne’s dad is concerned about developmental regression in his son. This can happen to children with autism when there are abrupt changes in the routine, during times of stress or when they feel overwhelmed. Changes to routines and social lifestyles and lack of intellectual stimulation during this covid19 period can cause developmental issues in special needs children as they struggle to deal with the new situation. Parents might observe that their children are struggling to do things that they could have done before, such as school work. Their children might react more to situations that would not have previously bothered them or appear sluggish and disinterested.
It is understood that many parents will panic when they see their children not doing the things that they are accustomed to doing. Many children with special needs (and children in general) react differently to studying at home as opposed to studying in a school environment. Zayne’s dad stated, “Usually I can’t get Zayne to do half of the things that he does at school with his teacher. When I am doing work with him he doesn’t really bother with me.” Also, many children associate home with a place to relax and play. It is a place where they do homework but when the home setting is transformed into a classroom it is difficult for them to adapt.
Dr Nancy Close, Yale University suggests that parents can support their children during this time by first being comfortable with the whole idea that their child might be going through a period of developmental regression. Parents should try not to be too shocked that the child is not doing something like before and especially do not express this shock to the child. Parents should try to offer support to the child. She also suggests that parents recognise and celebrate the child’s attempts, let him/her know that you are there to help them and celebrate their achievements even if it’s not what you would have expected.
For children with autism who were not attending schools prior to covid19, it is important to continue doing activities that will stimulate them and would encourage development at some level. These can be simple crafts, reading etc. It might seem difficult to accept that your child is not progressing as well as you want or as well as he/her was previously, but it’s important to keep encouraging and keep working with your child.
Dr Radica Mahase is founder/director, Support Autism T&T