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Teen girl with special needs during social distancing

Help Your Special Needs Child Cope With Social Distancing

adapting to the new physical and virtual reality

Tori is a friend to everyone she meets. The 7-year-old north Fort Worth girl, who has Down syndrome, thrives around others. It’s a happy quality—but one that isn’t exactly compatible with the mandates of social distancing. 

This has been a struggle,” admits Tori’s mom, Azure Jensen. “Being quarantined at home has been hard.” 

Though that’s true for everyone, for kids with special needs, it can be especially distressing. Still, there are ways to help your child, even if they resist safeguards or don’t fully grasp the situation. 

Practice New Norms at Home

Adults have, to a large extent, settled into a new normal; however, children—those with special needs, in particular—need frequent reminders about what’s expected. While you can and should talk about social distancing (before and during outings), visual learning and engaging activities are more impactful. 

“I’ve found role-playing scenarios very beneficial,” says Jill Hansen, a special education teacher in Fort Worth ISD. “We also watch videos, look at pictures and read social stories to reinforce personal space concepts. That’s a social skill needed right now, but it is also beneficial for students as they progress into adult life.” 

Masks are now part of our everyday world, but parents of kids with sensory issues may have trouble getting them to cooperate. Jensen plans to do the best she can with Tori on an upcoming flight. “I can’t imagine trying to keep a mask on her. We will try, but I’m not going to stress her and us out about it,” she says. “Maybe they will be lenient with her and all kids and adults with special needs. Hopefully people will be forgiving.” 

To increase your child’s success with a mask, “start with baby steps,” advises Heather Bianchi, vice president of clinical operations for Behavioral Transformations, an ABA, speech therapy and counseling provider in Rockwall and Rowlett. “Have the child practice wearing the mask at home for a short amount of time, then increase that time incrementally.” 

If your child truly can’t tolerate a mask and must be in a situation where it is required or advised, contact your local health authority for potential alternatives and guidance

 Assist With Technology-Based Communication

As families and friends physically distance, we’re all relying on virtual connections more than ever. Though some kids have adapted to technology-based communication relatively easily (“Tori has done well with the online learning process,” Jensen notes), for others, the change has been onerous. “Using Zoom and other technology for social interactions can create symptoms of anxiety in even the most socially apt and verbose individuals,” points out Bianchi. “Imagine navigating that technology with a deficit in communication and socialization.”  

It’s even harder when there’s not a visual component to the conversation. Tone and intent can be difficult to infer through emails and text messages, and children may be impatient for replies. 

If your kiddo is struggling with socializing and receiving therapy by screen, Bianchi advises flexibility. If your child needs a break from a virtual session and it’s not going to really adversely affect their development, let them take a pass. And when they do participate, take it in steps.

Your child may start by just listening. They could then write down what they want to say before moving on to vocal contributions. For texts and emails, reiterate that replies will not always be instantaneous. Finally, help children get clarification when they are unsure of someone’s tone or are confused by expressions that are not meant to be taken literally. 

Reassure Kids That ‘Different’ Is OK

With routines important to many kids with special needs, it’s no wonder they may feel extra stress these days. New behaviors may come up, or behaviors you’ve previously dealt with may re-emerge. “Children are attempting to control their world that is, essentially, out of control,” explains Bianchi. 

So moms and dads should reassure their kids that just because we’re still not following normal schedules, they don’t have to be scared. Hansen emphasizes, “Parents can help their [child] by communicating that things are different right now, and that’s OK.” 

Social Security 

Our experts offered these additional suggestions for this time of social distancing:  

  • Find social stories about appropriate distancing online, or check out Julia Cook’s book Personal Space Camp, which teaches personal space with a hula hoop activity. If needed, reward your child for maintaining distance. 
  • Tell kids exactly what you want them to do. For example, say, “Put your hands in your lap” instead of “Stop putting your hands in your face.”  
  • Let your child have some control by choosing activities. When possible, demonstrate a “go with the flow” attitude if they change their minds. 
  • If your child has an intense focus on specific facts related to the pandemic, acknowledge what they are experiencing, then attempt to redirect to another activity or conversation. 

 Image courtesy of iStock.