Cooperation can be a challenge for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) under the best of circumstances. And with the stresses and disruptions of the coronavirus crisis, those challenges have intensified for many families.

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At the same time, following instructions is especially important right now. As families that have been cooped up at home together begin to navigate the outside world, getting kids with ASD to follow new rules, including wearing face masks, is key to keeping them safe.

If you’re the parent of a child with ASD, read on for tips on how to increase cooperation while still respecting your child’s autonomy and keeping fights to a minimum.

Communicating effectively

Following a few simple guidelines can make it much easier to communicate with a child on the autism spectrum — and getting your message across makes cooperation much more likely.

  • Be simple and direct. “If you want to give effective instruction, you have to be super specific,” says Bethany Vibert, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. For example, instead of saying, “Can you finish setting the table?” you might say, “Please put the plates on the table.” The idea is to let your child know exactly what your expectations are in the moment, rather than giving them a list of tasks or a general instruction.
  • Avoid sarcasm, figures of speech and jokes. Kids with autism tend to take things literally, so non-literal speech like sarcasm and jokes can confuse them. And if they’re not sure what you’re asking, it’s hard for them to cooperate. “Saying something vague like, ‘It’s about time you get to that’ might just end up frustrating your child,” Dr. Vibert says.
  • Use visual aids. Often, children with ASD benefit from having a visual representation of their goal. So if you want them to set the table, for example, having a picture on hand of exactly how the plates should go can be a big help. A list where kids can check off tasks as they go can also make it easier.
  • Make cooperation rewarding. All kids appreciate acknowledgement for a job well done, so offer small rewards when your child does cooperate. “This could be as simple as a high five or maybe a tickle routine they really enjoy,” says Dr. Vibert. “You really want to make following instructions a positive thing.”

Getting your child to wear a mask

Wearing a mask every time we go outside is something we’re all getting used to, and it can be especially challenging for autistic kids. If your child finds masks uncomfortable or upsetting, there are ways you can help them adapt to this aspect of our new normal.

  • Take it slow. Vibert recommends adding masks to your child’s routine gradually. “Introduce the mask in a way that’s going to increase positive association with that mask,” she says. “Try not to do it right before you go somewhere or right before you want them to wear it.” You might start by having your child hold or play with the mask while they do something they enjoy, like watching a favorite show. Then, once they’re comfortable with it, they can hold it up to their face for a few seconds at a time and eventually wear it around the house. By practicing in low-stakes situations, your child will likely find the mask less stressful and have an easier time working up to wearing it in public.
  • Adapt to your child’s needs. Try to find out exactly what it is about the mask that bothers your child. Is it the elastic? The fabric? By experimenting with different masks, you can find one that’s easier for your child to tolerate. Getting one in their favorite color or a fun pattern can also help.
  • Have an exit plan. When your child is ready to go out with their mask on, it helps to be clear about what’s expected and what you’ll do if they have a hard time with it. For instance, you and your child might agree that they’ll leave the mask on for ten minutes and then, if they don’t want to keep it on after that, they’ll be allowed to leave the store and take it off.

Managing remote learning

Many parents of children with autism report that remote learning has been difficult for their kids. To encourage your child to get the most out of learning at home, set them up with systems that make it easier for them to cooperate.

  • Set reasonable expectations. It’s important to be aware of your child’s attention span. For instance, some online lessons are set up to last 45 minutes, but that may be too long for many kids with ASD to focus on a screen. Dr. Vibert recommends checking in with your child’s teacher to see how long your child usually had to focus at school and sticking with that time limit.
  • Take plenty of breaks. Once your child completes a chunk of work, encourage them to take a break with some physical activity, whether that’s going for a walk, playing in the yard or dancing to a favorite song. “An active break will make them a little less antsy and restless when they are sitting trying to engage with remote learning,” says Dr. Vibert.
  • Use a visual schedule. Having a clear visual schedule can help your child see what’s coming and motivate them to stick with tasks they might not like. Dr. Vibert recommends a simple “First/Then” format, where you pair a picture of something your child needs to do with a picture of the reward they’ll get afterward. For example, “If” might be a school worksheet while “Then” is a favorite craft project.
  • Be creative. If your child tends to struggle with the same kinds of tasks over and over again, try working with their teacher to come up with alternate ways of completing the same work. For example, Dr. Vibert notes that some kids do better writing by hand than typing, so sending scanned copies of assignments to teachers is a simple way to make remote learning more manageable for them. Even small adjustments can make it much easier for your child to cooperate with the new expectations of remote learning.

Did you know the Child Mind Institute is offering telehealth services? Learn more about Telehealth.

Click here for more resources related to the coronavirus crisis.