autism, parenting

How to reassure your autistic or anxious child about Coronavirus

If Ivy is worried about something she’ll either tell me about it or become anxious and withdrawn to the point where I’ll ask her what is wrong. Lily however will continue on in her rambunctious way, never admitting anything is wrong but becoming angrier, more defiant, more irritable and generally biting my head off – as if someone has cranked the level up to 11. Although as a family we don’t tend to watch the TV news, it’s hard to avoid all the headlines about Covid19 – and the rows of empty shelves as we did our weekly shop were a glaring reminder of the situation. In the car on the way home Lily quietly asked me if we were all going to die, and insisted that I tell her the truth, not just try to make her feel better about it.

It’s hard enough for adults to trawl through the innumerable sources of information out there and decide what’s truth and what is clickbaiting hysteria, but for children and teenagers it’s almost impossible. Faced with ever-rising figures about the numbers infected and the death toll, everyone is worried and uncertain – for anyone suffering with anxiety (and autism is an anxiety-related disorder) the consequences are unbearable. Our children have simply never experienced anything like this, and to be honest even as an adult who has lived through the swine and bird flu phenomena, I’ve never experienced anything like this either. No one knows what is going to happen nor what the long-term consequences will be. Personally I’m hoping that as our governments must surely be forced to work together, this sudden realisation that we are one global community might be harnessed in order to combat the crisis. Who knows?

In the meantime, it’s left to us as parents to reassure our children – many of whom are already suffering from OCD and heightened anxiety. What on earth can we say when we don’t know the answers, and when they’re witnessing empty shops, travel bans and talk of quarantine and school closures (at the time of writing schools in the UK are still open, but this may inevitably change?)

Please note – these are merely suggestions, and are aimed purely at providing reassurance rather than official medical advice; following these will not reduce the chances of you or your children catching Covid19. This is aimed only at reducing mental/emotional distress in the meantime. Also – the situation is constantly developing, so forgive me if my take on things becomes rapidly out of date!

  • Reassure them that not everyone will catch the virus, and of those who do catch it the vast majority will be ill for a short while with flu but won’t die. Some people will have symptoms that are so mild they don’t know they’ve got it. Serious cases and deaths have been with people who have pre-existing medical problems. Young, healthy people are not at high risk of developing complications or dying – it’s important that your child realises this, otherwise they might believe that they and everyone they love will die.
  • With older kids explain that it’s a form of flu, that there are deaths every year anyway from flu (which is why the flu jab is available) and as it’s a new form of the illness nobody has immunity to it, which is why it’s become such a problem. The main issue isn’t that everyone is going to die, it’s that it will be difficult to keep things running normally if too many people get sick at the same time. While we obviously want to prevent sickness and death, a lot of the measures being put in place are about trying to slow the virus down.
  • Explain what steps you’re taking to keep everybody safe, eg. handwashing, sanitisers, reducing social contact etc. If you have loved ones who are more at risk, explain what extra steps they are taking.
  • If someone in your household has a compromised immune system, print or create a notice to post in your front window asking deliveries etc to be left in the porch – these are available online.
  • Children may feel more secure if they are able to write House Rules to pin up near your front door or window, eg Please wash hands as soon as you return home.
  • Explain what will happen if any of you get ill and draw up a Plan of Action to reassure them. It’s a good idea to plan for this anyway! Who will look after the ill person, what meals have you got readily available, where can you get food deliveries etc? What extra steps can you take to try and prevent others in the house from also falling ill if possible? What happens if both (or single) parents get ill at the same time? You will likely find that your child has specific worries that they want you to address, for example they might be worried that they don’t know how to call 999, or they don’t know Grandma’s phone number if you get sick.
  • If you have stocked up on food, loo rolls etc, let your anxious child see the stash in order to alleviate their fears. They might feel less anxious if given more agency, so have them create an inventory of what you’ve got in stock.
  • If you haven’t got hand sanitiser, try putting together a home-made version with essential oils (search for recipe suggestions online) – this is unlikely to provide realistic protection (although several essential oils can have anti-bacterial or sanitising properties), but again it’s about providing reassurance to your child.
  • Focus on positive and practical news stories and share these with your child. eg. Local volunteer groups springing up to help fetch supplies for vulnerable people, or that firms such as Rolls Royce can be used to manufacture extra medical equipment such as ventilators. As Mr Rogers said, always look for the helpers.
  • DO NOT WATCH THE NEWS WITH YOUR CHILDREN PRESENT. Similarly, do not have conversations about it when they are in earshot.
  • Although most kids might be thrilled at the thought of school closing, anxious children might be worried about falling behind, particularly if they are approaching important exams, secondary transition etc. Show them what measures schools are taking, that GCSE’s are likely to be moved back to September in the UK, how lessons might be set online, websites such as Khan Academy, BBC Bitesize, MyMaths etc, and reassure them that you will help them to manage their education if school is shut. You could help them look at how children get an education in remote areas such as the Australian Outback, or investigate forms of home education – not going to school has always been a reality for some children and so there’s no need to panic.
  • Friendships are also important so discuss ways that they can stay in touch with their friends if you or they need to self isolate, or if school is closed – this is perhaps more of an issue for younger kids who might not have mobile phones/social media.
  • Older children might appreciate relevant updates, particularly if it shows that new measures are being taken to control this. Keep these practical and positive – either tell them about it personally or show them an internet article/video, as long as the content is positive. Avoid just handing over your phone/tablet etc, share it with them and then put it away so that they don’t start clicking on negative links.
  • Focus on the science; there are good scientific reasons behind handwashing for example (the soap can kill the virus by destroying part of its coating, for a very oversimplified explanation!) Address specific worries by investigating the reality, so if your child is worried that the shops will run out of food you could look at how supply chains work, or how rationing would work – how do governments make sure people get fed after a natural disaster, for example?
  • Try to provide distraction, eg watching a funny movie together, or silly YouTube videos. Life goes on.
  • Make a list of ways you will have fun and keep yourselves amused if a quarantine or self-isolation is imposed. Let your child have as much input as possible, coming up with fun suggestions, or perhaps they could make a list of all the board games or movies you own. Even making a list of their own toys, books and games might distract them.
  • Prepare a Self-Isolation/Quarantine box (do this quickly before further restrictions are put in place!) – allow everyone to choose a new magazine or book, a small treat etc. This all goes into a box that’s put away and only brought out if you have to self-isolate, or if you get sick, or when the whole shebang is over and done with. This way your child has something to look forward to and it can stop them dreading what might happen!
  • Self isolation doesn’t mean you can’t leave the house (although quarantine restrictions can vary so check if this is the case) – it means avoiding public transport, going to work, social gatherings etc. You are still allowed to go for walks, or ride your bikes! Fresh air and exercise tend to do everyone some good, and you are not putting yourself or others at risk if you’re rambling through the woods and fields. Reassure your child that they will still be able to leave the house and go outside, walk the dog – but they wouldn’t be allowed to visit friends or go to a cafe, library etc.
  • I followed these instructions to sew a face mask for one of Lily’s cosplay outfits. It is unlikely to reduce her risk of infection, but she’s happily wearing it when she goes out, particularly as she has to use public transport to get to college.
  • Allowing your anxious child to wear disposable gloves might reassure them (these may be available at DIY stores if pharmacists, supermarkets etc have sold out) – I’m increasingly seeing receptionists etc wearing them. If they’re young enough, any kind of glove might help to soothe them, although be prepared for an insistence that they get washed every time.
  • Ask older children what measures they think need to be taken, whether for you as a family, or what they’d do if they were in government – this can help them to start thinking practically and give them a sense of control, rather than panicking.

Generally there’s a need to provide anxious children with a sense of control over a situation that is way beyond anyone’s ability to control it. Younger children can be more easily reassured with the equivalent of Dumbo’s Magic Feather – a squirt of hand sanitiser or a face mask. Older teenagers are unlikely to be as easily convinced, and won’t trust you if they think you’re lying. It’s okay to admit uncertainty, but do your best to focus on the positive actions that are being taken. Remind older children that thousands of children face danger and uncertainty every single day; in Third World countries without clean water, in war zones, in refugee camps – sometimes it can help to count our blessings and remember that we have safe houses, clean water and advanced medical care available. Making a ritual of everyone saying something that they are thankful for before eating dinner, or at bedtime, can help us all to focus on the positive.

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