Dubai: Keeping children busy during self-isolation can be a challenge to any parent. Especially for a working parent, or a parent who is used to their kids being at school for the larger portion of the day.
Being cooped up indoors is tough for the child as well. They don’t fully understand the situation and are wondering why they can’t go to school, nursery or even leave the house.
If a child is on the autism spectrum it could prove to be even more complicated.
We speak with Rana Akkad Atassi, a mother based in Dubai, whose son Jad passed away in his sleep at age 11. He was diagnosed with autism when he was two and that inspired her to set up an institution that helps fill the gap between mainstream and special needs education in October 2016.
When Jad passed away in 2018, she renamed the institution (originally called Modern Alternative Education) after him – Jad’s Inclusion. The non-profit institution is located in a villa in Umm Suqeim. It has over 20 pupils.
Rana has also created a Facebook page for Jad’s Inclusion, which has over 2,000 followers. Through the page, parents can message and ask the team any questions and they will receive the advice they need for free.
Gulf News spoke with Rana to get tips on how parents can make self-isolation easy and manageable for children on the autism spectrum.
How is an autistic child different to play with than non-autistic children?
A lot of autistic children need social distance. They usually need their space and might not interact with you immediately once they meet you. A lot of them also have sensory issues, so they might not like being touched or touching certain texture. We like to give kids Play Doh. It seems to calms a lot of children down, however a lot of others freak out when they touch it.
So generally, before playing with an autistic child, or being involved with them in any way, you need to know their likes or dislikes. So always be extra careful before handing them something or giving them a toy to play with.
What are some fun activities you can do at home to keep them calm and happy?
There is no one size fits all strategy. Literally each case is different from the other. The common denominator with all autistic children though, is that they love a good routine. So during self-isolation, if you provide them with a proper routine that would be fantastic. We always tell parents “please don’t change the routine, and just keep them busy”. But unfortunately a lot of parents, and also parents of non-autistic children as well, will just keep their kids busy with electronics, because they have to get on with their day. I mean it might work. But with our kids, it will cause aggressive behavoiur. Keep their routine as is every day. Wake up time, when they eat, when they sleep, when they play. Try as much as possible not to change their routine.
How can a parent modify the environment at home to fit the need of their child with autism?
Just don’t change anything. Especially when a child is in their comfort zone. Keep everything structured. Another piece of advice is not to have a messy home. A lot of our kids love tidiness. Many of them have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), so they love having everything in place. They like things to be organized. So it’s important not to rock the boat and change things up during this period.
Even in our classrooms we like to use minimal colours, few paintings and art work on the walls. Just to make sure they don’t get distracted. We do however, hang their art work in the halls, so they can be happy and proud to see their work, but nothing too bright or stimulating in the place they are supposed to be having activities. Parents shouldn’t over stimulate them with bright distractions or change things around at home.
How can a parent address challenging behavior from a child with autism?
Like I said, structure and routine is key. Especially because we don’t know how long this situation will last for. If parents never had to prepare a routine, because their kids were at school, then they should definitely start building a structure life for their child and really focus with them. As simple as wake up at 7am, brush your teeth, have breakfast and so on. Even if it is silly stuff, try and do the same thing every day.
If there are any misbehaviors, kids should continue to stay in touch with their therapist. And for parents to keep implementing whatever therapy their child is doing. This usually helps a lot with behavior.
How important is structure and a routine in this self-isolation time?
Everyone in the world right now is going through a tough time. It’s not easy for neuro-typical kids at all. We do have a page on Facebook and Instagram called Jad’s Inclusion or @jadsinclusion, so anyone can contact us and ask anything. We want to help as many parents and children as possible, at any point of the year and also during these scary times. If they ask us a question we will answer free of charge, whether it’s with a Q&A or a free webinar. Our institution is non-profit, so anyone who needs anything we want to help. We are more than happy to provide any resource they want.
How can I explain to my child what is going on during this time?
Well it depends on your child. If the child is verbal or can read, there are a lot of simplified texts, audio recordings or videos that they can watch. Parents can message us on Facebook or Instagram and we have worksheets that we can share depending on each child, which can explain this current pandemic to kids in a simplified way.