If you provide services to children with autism spectrum disorder and their families, you are likely struggling with how to best provide much-needed support during this crisis, when you can’t work with children in person. Very often, children with autism thrive with a structured environment and treatment package. The services you provide often involve — or require! — face-to-face, hands-on work.

You may feel overwhelmed trying to come up with solutions to problems that haven’t been faced before. We have put together some tips to help you reconceptualize your work with children and families.

  1. Check in. The first thing you should do is simply check in on the people you’re supporting. You can call, text or email to start a conversation and ask if they are okay. Plenty of parents and caregivers are trying to balance working from home, supporting their children’s online learning, taking care of their home and putting on a brave face. They may be feeling trapped, stir-crazy, overwhelmed, guilty, anxious or unsupported. This is an important time to listen and validate their feelings. This will help caregivers feel supported and heard and will create a good foundation to move forward together.
  2. Train parents. While listening and validating are hugely important for establishing rapport and trust, the next step is to help caregivers move into action. While parent training is already part of many treatment packages, it’s likely that your training may look different during this time. You may not be able to have one-on-one time with caregivers to provide longer explanations — those may have to be communicated in writing. Instead of providing live demonstrations, you may need to use video clips found online to demonstrate your point. It’s time to get creative!
  3. Use technology. There are plenty of videoconferencing apps that you can use to conduct observations or sessions directly in homes. It may be possible for a family to set up a video feed of their home and talk to you using their cell phone with headphones during a session. Parents may be willing to send you video clips of their child practicing skills. Discuss these options with each family to check their comfort level and see what may work, given the tools they have.
  4. Be flexible. It goes without saying that this is an unprecedented time. As you shift into remote services, you will likely have to make some tough decisions regarding your treatment plan. Of course, all the skills you chose to target with your plan are important and socially significant. Consider the new and unexpected resource and time constraints. Parents may have reduced access to preferred reinforcers, the learning environment may be more chaotic than it was before with multiple people in the house, or the child’s behavioral needs may be different during this time. You will likely have to shift your treatment plan and reprioritize which skills you are targeting. You may find that tying shoes is not as critical of a skill as learning to follow a new schedule. You may learn that a family is searching for even more to work on to fill their child’s time. Flexibility will go a long way in terms of addressing acute needs.
  5. Manage your expectations. Considering everything parents are trying to balance, they may not have the time to devote to sessions the way you normally would. This can be frustrating for you as a provider and can certainly be a source of frustration or guilt for the parents. Parenting in a crisis is incredibly difficult; now is the time for the utmost empathy for the families we serve. A caregiver may tell you that they only have a 15-minute block of time to work on skills with their child. This is a far cry from your typical two-hour sessions! Instead of focusing on lost time or trying to push the family to create more space for your plan, give them credit for what they’re able to do and think about how to best capitalize on that block of time.
  6. Reinforcement. Make sure parents know how important frequent, specific, positive reinforcement is during this time. There are a lot of expectations on children right now including staying home, learning at home, learning new routines and coping with uncertainty about a virus that may scare them. Parents can help their child get through this by “catching them being good” at every opportunity when they engage in positive, appropriate behaviors. It’s important to note that reinforcement is not just for their child, but for them as well. Parents can absolutely reward themselves for accomplishing goals they set each day or week.