For those autistics or otherwise neurodivergent adults who need to work remotely due to COVID19 , a huge part of how it’s working is whether there are young or school aged children at home, and how well they balance their own needs with the sensory and personal challenges of families. This is true for both neurodiverse and neurotypical parents. Those who are fortunate have available childcare; for many, that’s impossible and this is “do it yourself.” Kids take time and attention, and without childcare, it’s very hard to get anything done.
Most of the advice I’ve seen encourages work that happens in blocks of time, so there’s a balance of work time, child time, work time, etc. This can be true even if there is some help with the children: in an anxious time, many kids need a check-in with the comfort of a parent’s love and attention.
Neurodivergent parents often feel triggered by the constant demands children make on their attention. An overstimulating sensory environment, an increased need for flexibility, relentless problem solving and the challenge of balancing work and childcare can easily lead to overload. (Neurotypical parents can be overloaded too, but they’re less likely to have sensory issues and autistic traits that make flexibility and tolerance especially difficult.) It’s vital that there be some way of taking a time out, and finding the way to take a break takes creativity. It might be setting the child up with a FaceTime talk, or finding some activity that allows the parent to rest with noise-canceling headphones or in a quiet room.
Commonsensemedia.org has a host of online entertainment: classes, performances, tours of interesting places like national parks, audiobooks, games and much more. This doesn’t work if the children are too young to care for themselves or too neurodivergent themselves to get immersed in a movie or a project that isn’t their interest. Having ADHD and being cooped up is very challenging. If it’s possible, playing outside or an inside game/pastime with large motor activity can be really helpful. (Dancing? Setting a time record for going up and down the stairs? A challenge of practicing to see how many times bouncing a ball can be kept going without a miss?)
Whatever the needs of the specific children, one can’t blame a child for having needs when life is upside down and parents are stressed, whether the child is neurodivergent or neurotypical. Parents have a higher baseline anxiety and can be pushed to their limits, and children pick up on that. Neurodivergent children – in fact, most children – are like tuning forks, picking up on everyone’s vibrations. Providing a safe “holding environment” with structure that works for your family and predictable rules is critical to a child feeling safe.
The only way to survive is to cultivate realistic expectations. This is not a time like any other, and it’s impossible to achieve one’s normal productivity or the standard of perfection typical for NDs. One doesn’t have to be Buddhist to recognize that suffering is caused by holding on to expectations. The serenity prayer asks for the serenity to accept what can’t be changed, the strength to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. A normally very active child is not going to become a quiet child just because it’s what the parent needs.
Parents can only do the work they are able to do. It’s absurd to think it’s possible to stay up working until wee hours of the morning and then get up to take care of children without increasing stress, lowering the immune system, and eventually burning out. It’s crucial that ND parents stay internally tuned in to their stress levels and recognize the importance of self care.
Family dynamics play a huge role in how successful sheltering in place can be. Critical times can exacerbate the problems and divisions in families. Most will experience a balance of positive togetherness and challenging antagonism. With young children, the issues of competing needs for attention, bickering and resistance to needed cooperation are obvious. Adult children at home often fall back into childhood patterns with siblings and parents. For some families, tensions inevitably build and they need to develop methods for giving space and slack. We need to identify the triggers or fault lines and find ways to navigate or avoid them altogether or to accept they exist and problem solve. Instead of repeatedly insisting that what’s happening is wrong, we have to learn to accept what is beyond our control.
It’s important to take ownership of problems. If having people home is noisy, and you don’t tolerate noise, the problem is yours. If you own the problem instead of blaming others, it’s easier to engage them in helping instead of pushing them into defensiveness. “You always” or “you never” are clues that blaming is going on. “I have trouble with noise and I need you guys to help me” works better.
Even families that traditionally get along can sometimes devolve into tolerance or even outright annoyance. No one planned to be marooned with seemingly unending togetherness. Find activities that draw you outside if possible – bike riding, hiking or even just taking a drive. Inside, try to find novel distractions; everything is online. Learn to juggle. Engage with something playful or even silly. Humor helps.
While some talk about an end in sight, it’s hard to know when that is or what it will look like. Meanwhile, we have to stay as calm and mindful as we can. I strongly recommend meditation apps like Headspace and Calm. Wellbeyond and Enchanted Meditations for Children are good for very young kids. Journaling gets thoughts out of our heads and onto paper so that they stop restlessly spinning. Kids can keep a picture or sticker journal. Whatever works for the person is best; don’t expect someone else’s self-calming ritual to work for you or vice-versa. Take good care of yourself, get sleep and eat well. We will make it through and learn as we go. That’s how we’ve gotten this far.