May 18, 2020
For the 1 to 2-percent of Americans with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), predictability and a consistent routine are vital. As COVID-19 upended all aspects of our daily lives, it has been a source of uncertainty for many with ASD and their caregivers.
The HANDS in Autism® Interdisciplinary Training & Resource Center at IUPUI acknowledged how the pandemic could impact those with ASD and launched a Coronavirus Hub for educators, families, and medical professionals to assist them in helping these individuals and their caregivers cope with the effects of this uncertain time.
“We are always trying to help people understand how individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) process – how they rely on consistency and structure, and how changes to their routine impact them,” said Naomi Swiezy, the center’s director and Alan H. Cohen Family Professor of Psychology at the IU School of Medicine. “Now our whole world is different, and everyone can relate. The uncertainty and unpredictability we are all feeling now is what it is like for people with ASD every single day and in every part of their life.”
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological disorder that affects social communication and social interaction as well as behaviors, interests and activities. It is more common than other well-known disorders such as diabetes, cancer, Spina Bifida, and Down syndrome, with 1 in 54 children having been identified as being identified with ASD according to estimates from the CDC.
To help individuals cope with changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has made a variety of resources freely available online, including downloadable templates, informational handouts, and online consultation and training. Individuals with ASD often understand visual information better, and the tools available in the Coronavirus Hub are geared towards helping them process what is happening in the best way possible. Social narratives, similar to stories that can be read to the person with ASD, cover a variety of COVID-19 topics, such as staying healthy and visiting the doctor. Downloadable templates for daily schedules and how to wash hands are also available.
“These resources are important in that they align with best practices and are immediately accessible, practical and usable in helping individuals and families put these practices into action as needed,” Sweizy said.
The center has long offered in-person trainings, but leadership and staff have been working diligently to convert all trainings and events into virtual formats to better engage and support the individuals and caregivers who need assistance during this time of social distancing. Many virtual activities and events are currently available.
For the first time in 15 years, the center's intensive “boot camp” training events for school personnel, job coaches, administrators, service providers, and more are becoming virtual, though still providing a uniquely interactive training with instruction as well as small and large group activities and discussions enabling mentoring, coaching and feedback that is always highly anticipated and valued by participants. The courses are taking place on Canvas and Zoom, and two options are offered:
“This is a unique time period with an urgency that fosters an unsettled feeling,” said Tiffany Neal, assistant director. “Our trainings for working with people with autism spectrum disorder are designed to help everybody. No matter the state of mind, we want our support to be a source of calm.”
Families and individuals, educators, healthcare providers and others seeking information or collaborative discussion can also join Ask-Learn-Share with HANDS in Autism®: Free Open Office Hours, happening every Tuesday and Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Participants can receive input regarding strategies that can be adapted to their own home, school or provider setting, and they can share stories or inquiries they have personally or are receiving while providing support for families.
“Families and providers regularly are seeking information that is practical yet evidence-based,” Swiezy said. “During this unprecedented time of social distancing and virtual support, it is even more critical to have the avenues for personal connection, support and direction.”