For Kids With Autism, School Shutdown Poses Even Bigger Quandary
SUFFOLK, Va. — It was the first morning schools were closed for the coronavirus pandemic, and Nick Goodwin had bitten his bottom lip.
His bus was supposed to arrive at 8:15. Nick knew that, because he knows his schedule and likes to go outside and ride the bus from his Suffolk home to Mack Benn Elementary.
But when the 8-year-old learned he wouldn’t be going to school that day, he got upset and bit into his lip, causing it to bleed.
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It’s this type of situation that Nick’s parents, Amanda and Brian, worry will only worsen during the extended school closure.
Nick and his twin brother, Noah, have autism and do best with routine. It provides them a sense of security and comfort. Any disruption or suspense — not knowing what’s happening next — can cause them to become anxious, and that sometimes makes Nick so upset he could hurt himself.
While millions of students across the country are out of school due to the virus and education officials work to figure out how to continue education, parents like the Goodwins face even more uncertainty. They rely on the structure of school and special education to keep their boys engaged and have been forced to wrestle with whether it’s safe to keep them in much-needed after school therapy.
“Our life,” Amanda Goodwin said, “is about to get very, very difficult.”
Other parents of children with autism say the next two weeks will be challenging, but nothing they’re totally unprepared for. Parents told The Virginian-Pilot they keep emergency supplies of food and medication stocked up. That meant they weren’t part of the big rush to the grocery stores in recent weeks.
“Disruption and change is kind of par for the course for me,” said Marissa Collins, who lives in Isle of Wight and has two children, Parker, 7, and Julie, 6, with autism.
At the Goodwin household, a kitchen closet and refrigerator stay stocked with the boys’ favorite foods: box after box of Goldfish, peanut butter crackers and Noah’s favorite, turkey hot dogs.
The twins’ new routine can be found on the erasable whiteboard in the kitchen.
On Tuesday, a list of the day’s activities read, “Wake up. Change, drink milk & eat. Play and watch TV. Art: color/draw a picture. Play outside.”
By late morning, the boys could be found in the backyard, bouncing around on the trampoline with their dad, Brian, who’s on leave right now from his Navy job. Snacking on his favorite Ritz crackers, Nick carried around an iPod touch. He uses an app that lets him count numbers up from zero and each time he taps a number, it says it out loud. Every now and again, he’d walk over to the wood fence and knock on it a few times.
Nick is largely nonverbal, though he speaks sporadically with his parents, and has an eating disorder, both things he’s working on either in therapy or at home. The boys are fraternal twins and were born 9 weeks premature.
Doctors pointed to early signs of neurological disorders, their parents said, but they weren’t diagnosed with autism until they were around 2.
“My kids need that school interaction,” Brian said, sitting in the backyard while Nick climbed on his lap. At school, the boys get to be around other children and work with a special education teacher on an individualized education program.
With school out, Brian said they’d have to come up with activities on the fly. When Nick doesn’t get out of the house, he can become extremely agitated, mentally shut down and can’t focus on anything but leaving.
That will mean lots of physical activity and long drives in the car, which Nick enjoys. They also plan to take him and his brother to the park a lot or walk around the grocery store, activities outside the house that could become more difficult given government mandates to avoid large crowds.
During school closures, parents of students with special needs should be mimicking as best they can what’s in their child’s individualized education program, said Nicole Miller, resource coordinator with the Autism Society of America’s local chapter. Some kids will need to see a daily schedule, others won’t.
Later in the afternoon, Brian got the boys ready for an afternoon therapy session at a center down the road. They have gone since they were young boys and work on behavioral and life skills. Staff at the center have become like a family to them.
As they got ready to leave, Noah began repeating what they were doing next.
“You’re my best buddy, daddy,” he said before heading out the door to the car.
That evening a local doctor, who has a special interest in autism and is not affiliated with the center the Goodwins go to, shared a recommendation on social media: Everyone suspend all therapy sessions, including in home, to help slow the spread of the virus.
A decision the Goodwin family did not want to make was now being put right in front of them.
In a text, Amanda said they were now thinking about discontinuing therapy.
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