Children with autism facing unique challenges during coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is keeping parents and children at home and away from others to stop the spread of COVID-19, bringing many changes to everyday routines.

Parents like Kelly and Brian Parker are using their creativity to help their child with autism adjust during the pandemic.

Kelly Parker spends her days juggling her children, a social life, and everyday responsibilities; but when the coronavirus hit, she began to panic.

Her four-year-old son thrives on structure, but his mom started to become concerned when his routine began to change.

Parker says, “things that we had set in place with him going to school and being in a classroom setting and being around kids and getting this practice and going to therapy three times a week,” were taken away by COVID-19.

“I was not nearly as worried about his little sister as I was about him, because I know that Henry’s main problem is social interaction. That is the one thing – that is the main thing – that was taken away from everybody,” Parker said.

Her biggest concern was Henry losing structure and all the practice he learned from school like listening to other children in his class have conversations and interact with each other.

Another obstacle the family faced was virtual therapies moving online.

“On the computer he would get up into the camera and he’d make silly faces to himself and it was just a lot more distracting than having it in-person,” she explained.

Dr. Lauren Carpenter with the Medical University of South Carolina says for parents who are not able to go to therapy, there are resources available.

She says most children with autism need three types of therapy. Occupational to help with self-help skills and sensory issues, and Speech therapy to start working on communication, whether it is with sign language or verbally. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy targets the core social deficits in autism, meaning core imitation skills, cooperative play, core social issues.

“There is a number of free parent training programs out there online that they can look into, Autism Speaks on their website under the COVID-19 resources has a number of free or some paid programs that parents can go through to learn how to work with their child with autism,” she said.

According to Dr. Carpenter, autism can be recognized around 16 months old. At that time your child should be able to point to things and not to just request, but show you things, make good eye contact, share facial expressions with you and actions with objects. If your child is not doing these things around 16 months, you may need to talk to a pediatrician.

For Parker, it was his special education teacher, preschool teacher, and his therapist who she says helped play a big role in Henry’s success during the pandemic.

“I am so appreciative of everybody who realized this was going to be a challenge for us,” she said.

To help with autism research remotely, MUSC is working on a study called Spark for Autism. You can do it from your home where saliva is collected from tubes.