DR RADICA MAHASE
“My son Kyle is ten years old and he is totally confused. One day we were telling him that we couldn’t go to the mall, now we are telling him that he can go to the mall but he cannot sit and eat in the food court. He doesn’t understand why suddenly it is okay to go to the mall again. Neither does he understand why he has to wear a face mask. Because he is sensitive to most fabric (we choose his clothes very carefully) he couldn’t use any of the face masks we bought. In the end we took one of his old T-shirts that he was comfortable wearing and we made a face mask for him. At first he kept pulling it below his nose. Now he keeps it on but not for more than ten minutes.
"During covid19 lockdown he was home all the time. So we were looking forward to places reopening so we can get him out of the house. But it’s very difficult because to him, everything is different. He keeps asking why he has to wear the face mask, why there are no tables and chairs in the food court, why he can’t sit and eat there.
"The first time we went back to the mall he was so overwhelmed by the changes that we had to leave. The girl said she couldn’t serve us if he didn’t have on his mask properly and that threw him off. I kept explaining to him that she was just doing her job and sticking to the new rules. But even now he keeps asking if we’re going back by the ‘bad girl who didn’t give him food.' All we can do is keep explaining to him and answer his questions.”
As TT prepares to reopen dining in at restaurants along with beaches, cinemas, etc, many individuals with autism might become overwhelmed and parents/caregivers may find it difficult to explain this new situation to their children. While it is difficult for the individuals with autism to understand this "new normal" it might also be difficult for businesses, customer service representatives, etc, to understand that if some individuals do not adhere to the new regulations it might not necessarily be because they don’t want to but because they just don’t understand it or simply cannot.
We can explain the "new normal" to individuals with autism through visual images such as videos, drawing, and photo stories. Using cartoons or animated videos can help children understand different scenarios such as putting on a face mask, ordering food for curb side pick up, maintaining a physical distance and so on. If a child doesn’t understand at first, then it is important to keep repeating explanations.
Asking and answering your own questions (especially for those who are non-verbal) also help. For example, you can ask your child, “Do you notice that everyone is wearing face masks? Why do you think they’re wearing face masks?” Some children might answer, some might not. So then it’s up to the parent/caregiver to answer, “They’re all wearing face masks because they don’t want to get sick….”
It might help to focus on what remains the same for those children who may become anxious or overwhelmed. So instead of only focusing on the new things that are happening, that are expected, you can focus on what the child is already familiar with. An idea is to draw a chart together with your child with all the things that he or she does daily such as “brush my teeth, eat breakfast, play, eat lunch…” In this way you are emphasising the regular things so that the child doesn’t feel like every single thing is changing and life is completely different.
Sometimes it is very difficult to anticipate how individuals with autism will interact in situations; one day the child is fine wearing a face mask, the next day he or she doesn’t want to wear it. Thus, parents are required to always be patient regardless of the situation. It is also a good idea to praise your children for adjusting to any little change, let them know that they are doing well. As Nikesia, Kyle’s mom noted, “If this is the ‘new normal’ then it’s a situation that we just have to make the most of and I will just keep explaining the same thing over and over with the hope that one day he will understand.”
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director, Support Autism T&T