No ‘Right Way’ to Quarantine: Supporting Children on the Autism Spectrum through COVID-19

Supporting Autistic Children During COVID-19

When Sandy Orozco first learned that her Shaker Heights School District would be closing its buildings to protect all students during the Covid-19 pandemic, she was relieved. She herself has an autoimmune disorder, making her vulnerable to the virus that could be carried home by her three sons at Woodbury School. “Nothing scares me more than not being able to care for my boys,” says Orozco. Her husband and she felt especially anxious because two of their sons, the twins, are on the autism spectrum.

According to Cleveland’s Milestones Autism Resources COVID-19 Hub, families with children on the spectrum often experience complex parenting pressures. Top concerns for these families include questions about how to develop new routines that provide comforting consistency, how to manage anxiety, and how to locate resources to meet the unique educational needs of their children.

In mid-March, Sandy Orozco and her husband, Army Captain Andy Orozco, explained to their three boys that spring break would last longer than previous breaks.  “At first,” Orozco says, “we were excited just to be together – having fun with toys, games, art projects, and music.” Orozco spent some of her time cleaning, gathering up supplies, and packing the freezer, confident that her children — Andre, age 12, and his twin brothers with autism, Aidan, 11 and Matthew, 11 — would be safe. Soon, she thought, they would get back to their school year.

Then Ohio Governor Mike DeWine extended his stay-at-home order. Spring Break was transformed into an extended quarantine. The reality hit hard. Schools were not going to reopen. Shaker Heights students were expected to continue school via online meetings with their teachers, just as the parents of 1,710,143 other students across Ohio would need to do.

Supporting Autistic Children During COVID-19Orozco accepted that staying home was staying safe – it was the right thing to do for her family and her neighborhood. But there were added pressures for her now. Her neurotypical son, Andre, needed support for his 6th grade curriculum, and she had to partner with the special education teacher and specialists for her twins with autism.

Through trial and error, Orozco figured out how to tailor curriculum for the different learning styles of all her sons. “I was worried that Aidan and Matthew would lose their new skills they had worked so hard to acquire.” The twins are on extended school year, receiving instruction over the summer to meet their Individualized Education Plans.

Like many Ohio parents juggling new duties, Orozco recognized that while she had no training, “I would be needed as an occupational therapy assistant, an adapted P.E. coach, a speech therapist, the lunch lady and the principal!” The boys’ teachers and therapists explained what she needed to do, and for all practical purposes, she became their hands and voices: “I developed a deep respect for my sons’ teachers, knowing what they do every day to help my sons grow.”

After two months, Orozco realized she was “baking, cleaning, doing laundry, teaching, and engaging the kids constantly.” Finding time to take care of herself was nowhere on that list. Like many parents of children with special needs, she had placed urgency and unrealistic expectations on all her duties.

Captain Orozco, though, pointed out an encouraging milestone that she was not recognizing — their sons were finding things to do on their own. An Army officer more familiar with giving orders, he urged Orozoco, “Tell me what I can do.”  Together, they came up with a workable solution: focus on activities that the boys had always wanted to learn about but for which there had never been time.

This new emphasis on their children’s choices increased cooperation, sparked curiosity, and empowered everyone in the family. Matthew learned to ride a bike and to play basketball with his mom. Aidan started learning piano from his father. Andre began teaching his brothers how to get ready in the morning–from showering, to bed making, to breakfast.

The family also developed new routines, which provided comforting predictability. “Our morning routine has a checklist,” says Orozco. That particular routine has definite advantages: the boys have options for making their own breakfast, giving them some control over their day, and Orozco can wake up just a bit later.

Their bedtime routine has helped the twins transition to sleep through a small reward. “We’re all about give and take in our household,” says Orozco. Before bed, the twins get a glass of milk and two chocolate chip cookies. “They really look forward to it – then they brush their teeth,” says Orozco. The parents’ reward?  A little more “off duty” time.

Self care has been an important lesson the whole family had to learn during the quarantine. Now, it’s built into their daily lives. Orozco and her eldest son, Andre, talk frequently to make sure he doesn’t take on too many worries and responsibilities when he helps with his brothers’ care. Both parents encourage all three boys to speak up for themselves.

Supporting Autistic Children During COVID-19Perhaps the most significant lesson that they learned during the “school at home” process, according to Orozco, is this:  “You really don’t have to ‘do quarantine’ correctly – there’s no such thing.”

Resources for families of children on the autism spectrum:

https://www.milestones.org/resources/covid-19-resources-for-families

https://www.autism-society.org/covid-19/

http://cfs.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/Disability-Resources.aspx

Resources for summer fun:

https://cmcleveland.org/programs/
Families can learn together through play with this exciting list or story times, programs and activities.

https://www.clevelandmetroparks.com/about/education/virtual-classroom
Cleveland Metroparks Virtual Classrooms and Live Zoo Streams bring kids up close to amazing wildlife and nature from the comfort of their tablet.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL4FE3F40227C82C90 
“Creature Features” spotlight favorite Cleveland critters hosted by Cleveland Museum of Natural History

https://www.youtube.com/user/ClevelandAquarium/videos 
The Greater Cleveland Aquarium brings kids under the sea with a close up view of marine life from the Aquarium.

https://www.youtube.com/user/GreatLakesScience
Curiosity Corner offers live demonstrations twice a day for experiments you can do at home.

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