Parents of children with special needs navigate new routines amid COVID-19

SEATTLE- Families with children who have special needs face different challenges as schools are closed to reduce exposure to COVID-19.

April 2nd is recognized as World Autism Awareness Day. Parents in the Seattle-metro area who have children with Autism shared their home school experiences thus far.

Aparna Prasad looked at a picture of her son climbing their at-home rock wall. She explained her son has autism and is nonverbal. Prasad said her family has been using creativity to keep her 8-and-a-half-year-old busy during the school closure.

“My little boy thrives on having routine. And he is one of those kids who looks forward to waking up, getting ready for school, following his step-by-step schedule and then getting on the bus,” said Prasad.

During quarantine, they use activities like puzzles to maintain sensory skills. They also receive general lesson plans from school, but Prasad said it can be hard to teach.

“Translating those emails into actually delivering a lesson plan, modified for his needs, is just something we’re not able to follow through with consistently,” said Prasad.

Miriam Reyes said her son has autism and is nonverbal. She said she is doing the best she can to keep her kindergartner active. Reyes, also a child behavioral therapist, said time away from school and therapy can cause regression, mixed emotions and lots of questions.

“What am I doing? What’s my schedule? Why isn’t my therapist coming? So, for them, it’s a huge thing to get used to having a new normal,” said Reyes. “Even if it doesn’t look close to what your usual normal is, try to be there for your child emotionally and make that a priority right now.”

A new normal doesn’t have to be challenging. Therapists with Seattle Therapy Skills for Life said what matters is routine.

“The more that we make it predictable for kids, they will probably just feel more in control of their day. The less unknown, the less uncertainty in these times for them, too, is really important,” said Shelley O’Donnell, Seattle Therapy Skills for Life director. “This can be a confusing time for them too, of course. Just getting down to their level and talking to them and providing some stability and comfort in daily routines would be the first priority.”

O’Donnell said her team is helping parents build schedules using basic daily tasks.

“We can create new routines in the home, where it’s waking up, and what time breakfast is, and what happens after breakfast, and even just the getting dressed and having some activities,” said O’Donnell. “Whether it’s playtime or maybe it’s some school based structured activity—that’s the kind of stuff that we’re really trying to help with.”

“I hope that in the next few weeks, maybe months, we’re able to turn the tide, turn the corner on all of this. And start to create that real human-to-human support connection that kids like my son really need,” said Prasad.

Area school districts are making adjustments to help support families who have children with special needs. Seattle Public Schools posted information for special education families on its website.

A statement from Tacoma Public Schools said:

During the second week of school closure, all special education staff met via in a virtual meeting and discussed ways to support their students. These included phone and online calls to students/parents to check on their well-being and making connections. They explained to parents how to use the information from the activity packets to engage children and shared with parents how to restart the process of conducting Individual Educational Plans (IEP’s). In addition, printed copies of the PreK-12 learning packets were made available for families to pick up at our 10 regional meal distribution sites.

Additionally modified packets (academic, functional, social-emotional ) for our special education students were provided via our website (to download) and printed copies at our meal distribution sites.

All case managers have access to these materials and as they are making the connections with parents can provide direct support in making modifications and accommodations. Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists and Speech Language Pathologist are providing supports to students through virtual platforms and are collaborating with case managers.

Our district sped staff are monitoring feedback from case managers to find the right balance between providing hard copies, being able to download virtually and use online resources of the materials we are providing for our special education student.

A statement from Bellevue School District said:

Our therapists are working closely with our families whose students have special needs to customize learning support plans. The goal of these plans is to identify the accommodations we can make to help these students tap into the distance learning available district wide, while also creating more personalized programs to meet their learning goals. We thank our parents for their partnership and patience as we go navigate this new ground together.

A statement from Everett School District said:

Just like for general education students, they are focusing student engagement and learning supports. The special education teachers and related service providers have gone through the same training as gen ed teachers to learn how to engage their students remotely. Special Ed staff have begun using a range of and different types of engagement such as emailing/sharing activities with students and families, Google Classroom and Seesaw, phone calls with families and some of the more sophisticated strategies includes pre-recording videos like morning circle, two-way group zoom. It aligns very closely with gen ed, with an added focus on making connections - making family and student connection to support engagement and fostering students class connections on with topics connected to learning.