Supporting Anxious and Autistic Children During COVID19

In the last few months we have all experienced huge changes in our daily lives. Work, school, home and leisure routines have completely gone out the window. What was once predictable is now different and unfamiliar. For children who thrive on routine and sameness, such as those who experience anxiety or are Autistic, these changes can be particularly challenging. It’s important to remember that anxiety in children can be externalised in many different ways and only rarely children are able to actually articulate “worries” or “fears”.

Some of the more common things you may see, or may see amplified are:

  • Increased self stimulatory (stimming) behaviours – either in frequency or intensity (or both)
  • More irritable, snappy or short tempered
  • More intense defiance or need for control – both over their environment and/or people around them
  • More time spent focusing on topics/items that they have an intense interest or expertise in
  • Emotions are more intense and explosive – big emotional responses to small challenges and a lower threshold for frustration
  • Fluctuations in appetite – forgetting to eat, being disinterested in meals or seeking out food more than usual
  • Changes in sleep cycles – difficulty falling asleep, frequent night waking
  • “Babyish” behaviour – speaking in a baby voice, role playing games that they had “grown out of”, wanting to be helped more with daily tasks that they were previously independent in

When responding to these behaviours and figuring out how to support your child through this, it’s important to follow your child’s lead, respond empathetically as much as possible and validate how they’re feeling.

For most kids, maintaining a daily routine is beneficial in creating consistency and stability. Even something as simple as having mealtimes at the same time each day creates a structure and predictability that can be reassuring for children. Other routines that can be important to maintain are morning and evening routines, where visual schedules or checklists can also help to keep everyone on track as well as going to bed and getting up at a similar time each day.

For some kids, maintaining extra-curricular classes and lessons via Zoom or similar can help provide some routine and familiarity. For others, the shift to online classes is just too different and can have the opposite effect of being unsettling and increase the feeling that they are missing out.

Empathy and validation can go a long way in decreasing a child’s anxiety. It helps them feel like they’re not alone and that what they’re feeling is normal and okay. As adults, we have learned to regulate and internalise our emotions which can make children think that we don’t feel the same as them when in reality, we are finding these changes just as challenging. Something as simple as verbalising out loud that you are finding it hard to stay at home, or you miss doing X activity allows your child to connect and feel understood.

Other ways to connect with your child and family include:

  • Reading together
  • Spend time outside together, playing games, doing scavenger hunts or find shapes in clouds
  • Play games or draw together
  • Spontaneously sing, dance or just be silly

Most importantly, remember yourself, and remind your child that this won’t last forever.

Guest Author: Julia Hay, a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, offers specialist paediatric OT services for children aged 0-18 for children with sensory processing differences, Autism, ADHD, ODD, Anxiety and complex needs. Julia’s Place was started in 2016 by Julia Hay. After 5 years working in Sydney’s Inner West, Julia saw the opportunity to provide specific services in the North West and North Shore of Sydney too.

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