APRIL 26, 2020
Being a parent to three boys in their teen and pre-teen years is no easy task. Having to guide them through distance learning during the COVID-19 global pandemic is even more difficult, especially for Amy Munera.
The Vista resident is adjusting to this new normal alongside her three sons, all of whom are autistic. She and her children — Patrick, 18, Christopher, 15, and Sebastian, 12 — have all seen their daily routines upended over the past few weeks.
“It has been interesting to say the least,” Munera said. “The hardest aspect of it is that we thrive on routine and familiarity, and that’s all gone out the window. I am glad for that reason that there’s actually a set schedule for what we’re doing for school.”
The three kids and Munera share a home with her boyfriend, who works as an In-Home Supportive Services provider for Sebastian and drives for Uber Eats and GrubHub.
Her oldest son, who has limited verbal abilities, is a senior in high school preparing to transition into a life skills program for young adults with developmental disabilities. His current high school curriculum is focused on life skills and is very hands-on, so distance learning has been a big adjustment.
Munera’s youngest son, who attends a private school, has a thorough academic program with new worksheets and lessons to tackle each day.
“I feel like his program is really robust and somewhat easy for me to administer as a parent, being as he’s only in seventh grade and he’s not doing anything that’s that terribly hard,” Munera said.
Meanwhile, Christopher, who is a sophomore in a partially mainstream class, is struggling to stay focused while being removed from the physical school setting. Participating in the newly online version of his improv classes has helped him to feel less lonely during the stay-at-home order.
“I think that’s a really good outlet for him because he gets to see all of the other kids in his class who he’s friends with and actually have a chance to like socialize,” she said
Kids diagnosed with autism often thrive when they have a set schedule and can regularly meet with behavioral therapists and other counselors, Doreen Granpeesheh said.
She is a clinical psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst who founded the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, based in Woodland Hills with offices in San Diego County.
“For anyone when their routine changes, we all kind of become a little bit more anxious,” Granpeesheh said. “For children with autism, it’s even more so because they really depend on the people they know and their routines to kind of give them a sense of security and just so they know what’s coming next.”
Even without the structure provided by a school day and extracurricular activities, parents can still create routines so their children know what to expect day-to-day.
One of the symptoms for those diagnosed with autism is being over or under responsive to different sensory stimuli, according to Autism Speaks.
This can make mask wearing difficult for kids when they’re out in public, Granpeesheh said.
To help kids feel more comfortable wearing masks, parents can train them by practicing wearing one for increasing intervals, starting at five seconds. As with other behavioral training, they should receive rewards when they complete a mask-wearing session.
Having kids make their own mask or draw on disposable ones can also increase the likelihood that they’ll want to wear it.
“When the kids engage in making masks themselves out of bandannas and things like that, they love them and they wear them,” Granpeesheh said.
There are several resources connected to CARD that parents can turn to both during the pandemic and in their daily lives.
The Institute for Behavioral Training is offering two free training modules each week for parents to help overcome challenging behaviors at home.
Online tools from Skills for Autism help parents create and use treatment plans for children and adolescents with autism. There is currently a 10 percent discount for subscriptions.
The nonprofit branch, Autism Care Today, is giving away 100 iPads to families so children can attend telehealth visits and participate in their new online classes.
It is also giving away $50,000 worth of grocery store gift cards to families who have lost their jobs or are struggling financially. Visit www.act-today.org to learn more.
Lastly, there is a daily series of free advice videos that covers a variety of autism-specific topics available at http://autism-live.com/.
Regardless of what tools a family turns to, Granpeesheh said the key for helping children with autism to understand what is happening right now is to focus on the new “rules” without inciting fear. These include the importance of hand washing and social distancing.
“We have just been telling our kids the rules associated with this,” she said. “It’s a little too much for a lot of young children on the spectrum to understand the danger. That could cause a lot more fear than we really want to.”
In addition to being a parent, Munera is president of Autism Society San Diego’s board of directors, a nonprofit that supports the community with a summer camp, aquatics program and other resources.
Instead of the typical meetings shaping plans for the upcoming summer camp, the board is instead figuring out what will happen if an in-person camp isn’t possible this year.
“It’s not as fun as what we could otherwise be doing, especially given that it’s April,” Munera said. “We’d usually have quite a lot of different events happening because it’s Autism Awareness Month, but unfortunately everything is canceled.”
Until kids are back to attending classes in their physical schools, Munera suggests parents take their new role as home school teachers one day at a time.
“Parents need to try and be a little bit easy on themselves,” she said. “When you’re trying to educate your child, even if they were neurotypical, if you’re not a teacher you’re not as skilled or practiced at education as someone who’s gone to school and has a degree for it and has been doing it for many years. We’re all doing the best we can.”
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