AMID the country's ramped-up measures to manage the novel coronavirus pandemic, the restrictions have found favour among some children with autism, who are relishing being away from school.
According to Dr Maureen Samms-Vaughan — professor of child health, child development and behaviour at The University of the West Indies (UWI) — the pandemic has provided a silver lining for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who prefer the reduced level of interaction facilitated by virtual learning, as opposed to in-person teaching.
She was speaking to the Jamaica Observer ahead of the commemoration of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.
“At the older level, adolescents with autism actually enjoy online school because one of the challenges with autism is that they don't like much social interaction. A number of the adolescents said they really love the online school and they don't want to go back; [the reaction is] mixed,” Dr Samms-Vaughan told Your Health Your Wealth.
She added that outside of the school environment, using public transportation to get to and from campuses can also be problematic for children with ASD.
“They don't often have physical disabilities, but some of the behaviour problems that they have — the hyperactivity, the aggression — makes it more difficult for them to take public transport,” she explained.
ASD is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Children with autism often have the desire to interact with others, but aren't able to engage appropriately or may become overwhelmed by the process. As a result, children with autism usually avoid interactions even though they strive to connect with their peers.
In Jamaica, one in every 68 children is affected by autism, and boys are almost five times more at risk than girls. The Jamaica Autism Support Association, formed in 2006, has said that indicators of autism usually become apparent when a child gets to age two or three. However, some delayed development may be recognisable as early as 18 months.
However, while these children may enjoy spending more time at home, Dr Samms-Vaughan is advising parents to spend most of that time engaging them.
“Remember that you're not teachers. Right now, the best thing you can do for your child is support them in whatever they are doing,” she said. “You want to spend a lot more time playing with your children and helping them to develop the skills that you can at home… to feed themselves, to dress themselves.
“It's more important now for children's mental health to be good; developmental and mental health are important and are much more difficult to catch up,” she insisted.
The child development and behaviour expert also highlighted the necessary but challenging push to get children with autism to wear masks, which is one of the protocols recommended to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“Just like other parents, they didn't expect it (the pandemic) to be going on this long. It's been a year. So, it has been a bit [stressful],” Dr Samms-Vaughan noted.
“Trying to get a child with autism to keep a mask on can sometimes be very difficult. So, parents have to model it and make sure they choose the right material for their child... [and do] fun things like drawing their favourite cartoon character on it to make sure that they like it. Getting them to wear a mask and teaching them to sanitise is what we want parents to do,” she added.
Dr Samms-Vaughan said, too, that some parents with autistic children have also benefited, to some extent, from the COVID-19-related restrictions. She said parents are now spending more time at home with their children and can better track and contribute to their children's development.
“A lot of times they would take their children to therapy and then pick them up [afterwards]. Now, they were able to understand exactly what the children's strengths were, what their challenges were, and a few parents told me that they were able to train their children. So, there were downsides [to the pandemic], but there were some positive aspects to it [as well],” she told Your Health Your Wealth.
She added that the panic and fear at the onset of the pandemic has since subsided. People now understand what they should be doing; a programme — funded by the Canada Fund through the High Commission of Canada in Jamaica and initiated at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) — also helped parents amid the pandemic.
“We have a clinic at the UHWI called the Child and Family Clinic, which is our child development clinic. When COVID-19 started, we started talking to parents, not just parents of children with autism but parents with children with disabilities, in general,” Dr Samms-Vaughan explained.
“Because autism is so common, the majority of children we see at the clinic are children who have autism, so a lot of the parents I'm talking to are parents of children who have autism. They were very distraught because the children didn't have access to some of the schools and some of the intervention activities that they would normally go through. A small portion of children get therapy, and the therapy was no longer working face-to-face,” she said.
They were, however, able to assist through the programme.
“We bought toys, and we taught the parents how to stimulate the children with the toys. They would come in once every two months, and between the times they would come in we would be on WhatsApp with them, and they would send us pictures of what their children were doing. It really worked well. Now, they were empowered to support the children themselves,” Dr Samms-Vaughan said.