In-Home Suggestions for Parents during Quarantine

March 20, 2020

Man hanging an activity schedule

Autism New Jersey realizes that every family has diverse needs, concerns, and priorities and is impacted by this crisis in different ways. We offer the following basic tips for your consideration; some may not be feasible in your life on certain days or at all. The challenges you may be facing may far exceed some of these recommendations.

The priority right now is the safety of your loved one(s) with ASD and everyone else in the household. These are simply general strategies intended to help manage these unprecedented circumstances. Try what you can, call us for support, and stay as safe as possible.

Clarifying Expectations

Modify

Modify the Environment

Now that your children (of any age) are home all day, consider any modifications to the physical space that might reduce the likelihood of danger. If aggression, self-injury, elopement, or property destruction are possible, brainstorm with other family members as you consider the physical layout, one room at a time.

  • Should doors and windows be locked to prevent leaving the house without your knowledge?
  • Could items that might be thrown be removed or somehow fastened?
  • Do medications or dangerous items need to be locked away?

Beyond safety modifications, other physical adjustments can promote calm and organization. Arranging distinct areas such as a worktable, a relaxing spot with favorite items, and a cozy reading corner can clarify which activities will occur in each space. If there is structured academic or work time, it may be easier to focus while seated in an area with minimal distractions.

Positive Reinforcement

Do the best you can to keep your usual rules and reward positive behaviors.

When you notice your child cooperating, working, or generally behaving, consider praising them for doing so (“Great job staying at the table while you eat!”). This may help them to better understand what is expected and do that more often. This type of positive reinforcement can be more effective and less stressful than scolding or timeout. Essentially, the focus is on encouraging the behavior you want to see. Simple “First-then” or “If-then” statements used consistently (and with visual supports as mentioned below) can also be helpful.

Choice Box

Create a Choice Box

Use this when your child seems unengaged or restless, and you need to redirect their focus onto something productive. Put several different items in there each day, such as preferable fidget toys, bubbles, Play-Doh, stickers, books, or anything that might be of interest.

Visual Supports

Visual supports are pictures and/or written words used in various supportive ways: illustration of steps to follow, options to choose from, labels for organization, and more. These can help individuals with autism navigate their environment more independently by showing what is expected in new routines, multistep activities, and behavior.

The following are some different ways you might use visual supports at home. Your child’s teacher or behavior analyst might be able to provide additional advice or contact us to discuss how you might be able to use these options in your unique situation.

Activity

Activity Schedules

An activity schedule can depict part or all of a daily routine. You might keep it simply, “First –, then –.”

  • First chicken nuggets, then ice cream.
  • First puzzle, then iPad.
  • First brush teeth, then get dressed.

Or you might sketch out the whole day (or sections of the day): breakfast, math worksheet, one TV show, read, play outside, lunch, and so on. Photos or picture symbols can be very helpful if the individual isn’t a fluent reader. You can find picture symbols for almost anything using the Boardmaker program, and you can edit the word labeling each picture. Your child may already be familiar with the style from use at school or work. The company offers a 30-day free trial, so you can print these at home as needed. If you prefer, use photos from your phone if you can print them, or just simply sketch or write out the terms you need. Teachers or behavior analysts working with your child may be able to provide these for you (materials they use at school or new ones specific to the home). Check back soon for a list of apps where you can create visual supports and schedules if you prefer that to paper.

Timers

Visual Timers

There are free apps that illustrate how much time remains until a preferred activity starts or in which a task must be completed. One that your child may already be familiar with is Time Timer. The visual representation of the amount of time left can be much easier to understand than saying, “5 more minutes.”

Choice

Choice Boards

This is a way to help your child understand what the current options are and how to communicate that choice to you using words or pictures. They can use it to pick what they would like to earn for completing a task, choose between free time options, or decide the order they prefer to compete a set of tasks.

Offering choices may reduce the level of resistance to doing what they’re asked. Present two or more pictures or phrases and ask which they would like (with however much language your child will benefit from).

“Snack first or counting?” or “When you finish your worksheet, do you want 10 minutes on your iPad or 10 minutes outside?”

This gives the individual some control while still providing the expectation that these are the specific things that must be done. You could then illustrate their decision with a First-Then activity schedule as described in this section.

Token

Token Economies

As your child makes progress on a task (answering each question, completing each step, etc.), he or she earns small tokens (stickers, pennies, etc.)  leading to a greater reward. The tokens show the progress being made as they get closer and closer to finishing the task and earning the reward. For example, they may get a small sticker on a chart for each letter traced, and when 10 letters are done and the chart is full, they get to listen to a favorite song. Repeat for the next 10 letters.

Spend Time Outside or Moving

If it is safe and there is no expected risk of elopement, then walks, movement breaks, and fresh air can be enjoyable ways to spend part of each day. If the weather or circumstances don’t allow for this, indoor movement breaks can be good options. Cosmic Kids and Go Noodle have yoga and movement stories your family may enjoy.

Prioritizing Goals and Addressing Challenging Behavior

Isolation and increased stress certainly make it difficult to address behavioral and academic goals. Be gentle with yourself as you do your best in these challenging times. You may wish to focus on home-based functional skills such as household chores or choice-making.

If your child’s team has created a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) of strategies for addressing specific challenges, try to implement any components that are possible at home. Telehealth support (video-based consultation and/or instruction) might be a helpful option. In the meantime, if any existing or new challenges arise, jot down some notes that may be helpful to look back upon. Perhaps keep a notepad out where you can jot down:

  • What happened right before the behavior happened (e.g., I told him “Time for bed.”)
  • What it looked like (e.g., He screamed and hit his bedroom wall.)
  • What happened afterward (e.g., We ignored the screaming and provided minimal attention as we checked his hand. When he was calm, we did his nightly routine with him. Then, he paced in his room and went to bed at midnight).

Even a few notes taken once in a while can be helpful in seeing any patterns and getting help to address these concerns.


This is uncharted territory, and we congratulate you for doing the best you can each day. We recognize that the significant changes in routine and services may lead to increasing difficulty for your child(ren) with autism. We hope some of the recommendations above may help a bit, and are here to support you however we can.

Experience Our Power of Connection

Autism New Jersey is following recommendations from the CDC and state Department of Health and is implementing telework and remote meetings for its employees to help reduce the community spread of the coronavirus.

During this time, our 800.4.AUTISM Helpline will remain open. Please leave a message with specific dates and times you are available for a call-back, or email information@autismnj.org.  You can also message us via our website, and we’ll aim to reply promptly.

We remain focused on our mission to be a resource for the autism community. With a fluid situation and great uncertainty, we’ll share relevant, accurate information as it becomes available. We encourage you to regularly visit our central hub of coronavirus resources for the autism community.