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How can I help my child, who has a developmental disability, cope during COVID-19?

Jennifer Poon

Jennifer Poon, MD, FAAP


​Being a parent or caregiver of a child with a developmental disability has its own daily challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic added to these, with families ​​needing to adapt to the “new normal" to slow the spread of the virus.

There are some simple things you can do to help your child understand and adjust to changes such as not seeing their teachers or classmates in person, having to wear face masks, or having to keep a distance from people who are outside of their household.

Monitor your child's feelings. As you know, even if your child has limited speech, they are communicating with you through actions. Increased restlessness, tantrums, or sleeping or eating poorly may be signs of stress or worry. Give your child extra hugs and positive words to show you understand how they feel.

Help your child understand. Try to explain the situation using all the types and ways of communication (such as words, pictures, music, etc.) your child can understand. This may mean repeating it several times over several days. You can also try using stories with pictures that help explain a situation. For example, say, “There's a germ called coronavirus." Then try to show and explain, “We can't stand too close to other people when we are outside our home." There are some good examples online of social stories that can be used to help explain COVID-19.

Try to keep routines. Children are used to routines, such as going to school, therapies, coming home, and they like this structure and knowing what comes next. Since routines are different right now, it may make some children feel unsettled. It can be hard for families to create and maintain schedules while caring for children at home all day while also juggling work and other responsibilities. But trying to keep some familiar routines along with the new ones can help reduce overall stress.

​Consider making a visual sc​hedule with pictures.

​This can help your child see what the day looks like and know what to expect. You can place pictures in the order they will happen, then look at it together. It can be helpful for some children to be part of the planning to give them a sense of control and build self-management skills. Marking tasks completed can also be a way so celebrate small successes throughout the day. ​

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides example visua​​l schedules with drawings families may find helpful.

Spend some time outside each day, if possible, while practicing social distancing. This can help your child get some exercise. Regular exercise may also help keep a regular sleep schedule, which can be a challenge for children with developmental disorders such autism spectrum disorder. Adequate sleep helps support a child's physical and emotional health.

Stay connected virtually. Continue to find creative ways for your child to connect with family and friends, such as with video calls or texting. It's also important to stay in touch with teachers and therapists so you can ask questions or seek advice. Many children also enjoy seeing their teachers and therapists on video calls. This is also a good time to connect with local family led organizations that may offer virtual social opportunities.

Model behavior & coping skills. Show and explore with your child positive ways to deal with stress. If you feel frustrated, for example, tell them: “I am taking a deep breath to calm down," or “I need to take a walk to unwind." (Even better, suggest a family walk when possible to help everyone relax!)

Take care of yourself. Remember that your physical and mental health is important, too! Taking care of yourself is key to helping you continue taking care of others during the pandemic. Try to eat healthy, regular meals, exercise and get enough sleep. Finding others to talk to, whether in person, or by phone or video can also help relieve stress and make you feel less alone. Family support groups are a great way to connect with other parents of children with developmental disabilities.

Prioritize what works for your child and family. Its ok to set family goals like having meals together, calling grandparents, working on life skills, and doing something fun with your child. These can be just as important as other goals to move forward during stressful times.

More Information

Jennifer Poon

Jennifer Poon, MD, FAAP

Jennifer Poon, MD, FAAP, is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. Her clinical work focuses on developmental delay, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Poon is an Executive Committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

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AAP Sections on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and Council on Children with Disabilities (Copyright © 2020)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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