In my previous post, I explored the tumult of unusual activity flowing into and out of our brains as a result of the novel Coronavirus and the worldwide response to it. The threat to lives and livelihoods, the near-total curtailment of social interaction and the departure from normalcy – all of these taken together are wreaking havoc with how we think and feel.
Worse yet might be the increased uncertainty that accompanies all this. 9/11 happened over the course of a morning. Pearl Harbor was a rallying point for action. While the devastating emotional and psychological trauma of these events can be lifelong, the events themselves were flashpoints—over in a matter of hours. We were able to begin picking up the pieces and take corrective action more immediately. With Covid-19, we’re stuck inside our homes living this new distanced reality, with serious economic impact for many, for who-knows-how-long.
As I noted in Part 1 (Blog Part 1), experts in the field of psychology and brain science empathize with the challenges our brains are facing but also remind us that we can use our brains in an intentional way to manage our thoughts and emotions to some degree and create productive habits. We can accept that this is the new normal until it isn’t, remain positive, focus on the good things in our lives, and divert ourselves with creative and meaningful activities.
For individuals with autism individuals, the calculation is somewhat different. Most autistics thrive on predictability and structure, and struggle with change, even changes many would consider small and inconsequential. Having their lives turned upside down, as they are now, falls somewhere between extremely distressing and catastrophic.
For caregivers of children and adults with autism, the need to perform “social distancing” is incongruous. Their services are, by definition, one-on-one and in person. As Leann McQueen, a residential coordinator for the Young Adult Institute in Brooklyn, told ABC News about her organization’s services to young people with disabilities, “People need assistance with personal hygiene. Even being asked to wash your hands can be more challenging.”
Christine Motokane is an articulate self-advocate to whom I spoke when conducting research for my book, Autism Matters. In her blog, Redefining Normal: A Young Woman’s Journey with Autism, she outlines some of the challenges she faces in this extraordinary time. Everything that is familiar to her has closed – her workplace, her favorite restaurants, other non-essential business – even the weekly outings with her support person have suddenly ended.
“I had to spend and celebrate my 28th birthday at home. All of these sudden changes coupled with the fluidity and ever-changing nature of this situation, has caused my anxiety to skyrocket,” she writes.
This is particularly worrisome because anxiety is often a constant state of being for autistic individuals who are hyper-sensitive to stimuli like light and touch. While “social distancing” has relieved many of those with autism of the anxiety about shaking hands or otherwise engaging in unwanted physical contact with others, and may be comforted by the six foot barrier others are maintaining, they must also confront a degree of exacerbated uncertainty that we all find discomfiting but those with autism may be traumatized by.
Autistica, the UK’s leading autism research charity, notes that autistic individuals react to uncertainty by avoiding such situations, by over-preparing for them or by gathering information that might reduce the uncertainty. None of these strategies is well-suited to this crisis because it can’t be avoided, over-preparing can lead to hoarding and gathering information about an unknown can just result in heightened anxiety.
The strategies that I enunciated in the previous post to manage anxiety about COVID-19 probably apply to everyone, inadequate though they may seem. Keeping as much of the normalcy in our lives as possible, creating a routine and some structure to our days and engaging in activities that enable some type of social contact can ward off some of the avalanche of change in our lives.
This reminds me of a story I came across in my research about maintaining the positive therapy momentum for children with autism during COVID-19. One mother, in an effort to keep life as normal as possible for her son, wakes him up at the usual time, has him dress in school clothes, maintains the entire morning routine, ushers him into the car and drives him around the neighborhood for 20 minutes before returning home for “school”.
Unfortunately, many parents have neither the time nor the bandwidth for such an effective regimen, innovative though it is. They are struggling to keep it together themselves, juggling work at home with the intrusions of family and a lack of respite from 24-hour-a-day demands of caring for children and keeping them constructively busy.
For situations like that, it’s important not to let perfection be the enemy of good. There is no playbook for a circumstance none of us has ever encountered before. Any steps families take, even small ones, like maintaining wake-up and bedtime routines, creating regular family fun time (playing games, reading books, etc.), exercising and dedicating time to learning daily, will all help to maintain a sense of routine and normalcy which will accrue to the benefit of all of us, adults and children alike.
Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Advisor to Investors in Behavioral Health