Friday 6 March 2020

How do I help my pre-verbal autistic child during this coronavirus outbreak?

Child sneezing

Just a few days ago I wrote a post about how I talk to my young children about the coronavirus COVID-19 and how do I keep them safe?  It's sparked a few responses particularly as, like myself, many of our readers have children with autism, comorbid conditions or other disabilities. For many children, it's about being honest and talking to them at their level.  But how do you help a child who might not understand what's going on never mind what to do about it?

I've already said it's about using language that they can understand and in a way that is truthful and unemotional.  Some children with poor expressive language can still understand at a much greater level.  For some of them, they can understand the idea that some people have died from coronavirus and this can be absolutely terrifying. 

We can support our kids with facts and information, like who is most at risk (eg. not children) and what our country is doing to help to take care of people.  Providing a ready plan can help them "This is what we do" and try to keep them away from the news.  Update them with your language when you think you should.

What about kids with very poor receptive language?

Our middle son David is pre-verbal.  He doesn't really talk beyond a few single words.  He understands more language than he says but he doesn't follow any conversation about coronavirus - not even nearly - and there's no chance of getting him to remember to wash his hands.

He sneezes and coughs without thought and often licks his fingers for no particular reason. So what can I do?

Well speaking to David at his level about the coronavirus doesn't even include the word. It doesn't involve much taking at all.  Instead I need to model to him, help him adopt routines and support him where I can.

What about getting my kids to wash their hands?

Thankfully David's quite good at following instructions he understands so knows what washing his hands means and I can verbally request this of him.  But some kids might need a visual like a PECS or prompt card to get them to the sink.  If a child follows a daily visual planner then hand washing can be inserted into the daily planner at the right intervals for the activities for the day.  The Autism Page has a useful washing hands poster that includes the steps for kids to wash their hands eg turn on tap, wet hands etc.

Many kids with autism and other conditions may also struggle with motorskills and with sensory issues too. Soap is a really important part of the process as it breaks down the coating on the virus cells making it inactive.  A foaming pump soap can not only help get soap around the fingers and hands easily but can appeal to the sensory seeker too.  A moisturising hand wash might be better for those with eczema or sensitive skin too.

We can't sing happy birthday as suggested by Boris Johnson to make sure David is washing for the required 20 seconds - David would expect a birthday cake afterwards. But think of what could work for your child, whether it's counting numbers, reciting a favourite list or using a timer.  Or maybe like me, you'll just count in your head for 20 seconds for them.

What about coughs and sneezes?

The guidance is to cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm or best into a tissue and then dispose of this immediately. Short of following David around with a tissue this honestly isn't going to happen.  Thankfully he isn't coughing or sneezing at the moment but if he did what could I do?

Singing songs about it and The Autism Page also suggested social stories.  Social stories can be very powerful and you can create one just for your child.

I can of course model sneezing into a tissue and coughing into my arm and so can his siblings - it may take.  Having tissue boxes about may also help with this so they are readily available.

I've read that the virus can stay on surfaces for up to 72 hours so the best I can do is clean the areas around where David is if he has coughed or sneezed.   I know this is not ideal.  But there are antibacterial wipes that I can use and bin and also antibacterial sprays that can be used on all hard and soft furnishings too like sofas, bedding, upholstery and car seats etc - I use the dettol ones but I'm sure there are others.

Have you got any tips to help - please share!


  1. My kids are young and so we use let ta of visuals for washing hands. I do need to work on coughing and sneezing so maybe a social story


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