Quirky Kid Quarantine: What Worked.
Updated: Mar 29, 2020
Now that we are "sheltering in place" because of the coronavirus, I find myself unwillingly inhabiting the gender role of a 1950's housewife - providing childcare, education, house-cleaning, cooking, laundry and general household logistics planning - while my husband works a full-time job, albeit from the bedroom. After two long weeks of quarantine with my quirky, restless, Sensory Processing Disorder 5-year-old and his cheerful 16-month old brother, I decided to have a gin and tonic long before Friday happy hour had arrived. While the baby napped upstairs, T and I went outside in our backyard to soak up the recently emerged sun and burn off a little energy before screen time was allowed.
So I sat on my back deck, sipped my mixed drink, ate two frozen cupcakes, and watched T attempt to catch flies with a sheet of cardboard, cups of water with lemon, and honey he had spread on the railing. Because, really, who gives a shit about dried honey on painted railings at this point? And maybe it was the gin, or the vitamin D, or the 24-hour hiatus I was making myself take from reading the news obsessively, but I thought to myself, This isn't so terrible right now.
Of course, things are terrible in a collective, big-picture sense. But today I am going to focus on what has worked and what has not been terrible in our home, because I think all of us need a little more of "not terrible" these days.
What has worked (or "Small Wins")
(Sorry for the lame photo, it's all I have right now)
Like all kids with Sensory Processing Disorder or ASD diagnoses, my son, T, depends on knowing exactly what will occur each day before it happens, half-an-hour by half-an-hour. Even before the pandemic arrived, every morning T and I would walk through a visual calendar before brushing our teeth and eating our vitamins. Laminated pictures would signal to him whether he was going to leave school early to go to occupational therapy, a craniosacral appointment, or if he would stay at school until after rest time. Or if, god forbid, we had to do something outside of the normal routine, like visit the dentist or go pick up his baby brother from daycare early.
Now that there is no school, no in-person therapy, no trampoline parks, no playgrounds, no friends or cousins, and a toddler in the house to boot, we have obviously had to revamp the schedule. But sticking to it and communicating it visually each day, throughout the day, has been our saving grace. I use a visual timer to mark the times and transitions. The kids and I sign in each day "for school" and separate the "activities" by transitions between rooms, snacks and mealtimes, the baby's naps, and screen time (of which there is plenty). As a side note- if laminating feels overwhelming and it certainly did to me when I first created a visual calendar - just draw pictures. I did that for months after T's diagnosis.
The boys are technically "in school" while their dad works from the downstairs bedroom. And keep in mind, what I mean by "school" is not necessarily academic (more on this in the "What Hasn't Worked" post), but rather a symbolic separation from hanging out at home and the times we are all doing our "work". I believe this has not only helped the kids, but also my mindset - to treat the weekday time with the kids as my job. I remind myself, I got dressed up, commuted 45 minutes, and went to all these meetings that were mind-numbingly boring or frustrating while working for a non-profit in D.C., why can't I apply the same mentality and fake smile to when my kids are going insane and giving each other bloody noses? I find it helpful.
Because I needed to churn out a bunch of new pictures for the visual schedule and the local UPS was closing its doors, I bought a $20 laminating machine on Amazon, plus 100 sheets of 5-mil laminating paper for another $15. This is the best money I have spent in the past year. Not only has it allowed me to quickly churn out visuals or laminate letters of the alphabet that I can use for scavenger hunts and that are Ok for the baby chew on without worry, it has also provided unexpected entertainment for my older son.
Unfettered use of the laminator has incentivized him to both do independent play for an hour while I do the dishes or cook and to use fine motor skills by drawing or writing - something he usually resists fiercely. Over the past week he willingly spent between 30-60 minutes each day drawing with markers, cutting, and even practicing letters on his own (never if I ask him to, because he has demand-avoidance challenges) just so that he can watch that plastic sheet melt in the machine and come out as a hard plastic reminder of his independence and "big kid" status. I now let him do it relatively unsupervised (I am in the kitchen and he is visible), which he takes great pride in.
Before the shelter in place order, I went to the Dollar Store and got some cheap school and art supplies because I knew that my son would not likely "play on his own" without structure. He has never been able to do this. Of all the things I purchased, the one-dollar bag of colored balloons has been the biggest hit. We have blown them up for an occupational therapy session through telehealth, played "baseball' in the living room with used paper towel rolls and stuffed animals to mark bases, filled them with water and small toys to freeze and then unwrap the following day, and to celebrate a Zoom birthday with a beloved aunt. Balloons for the win.
A while back I bought $15 worth of colored painter's tape for art projects, which has recently facilitated a lot of unexpected creative play with my older son. The rolls have been unraveled to cover walls, decorate stuffed animals, clothing, and faces. They have demarcated new physical spaces in the house, created super-hero costumes, targets on the walls, and balance beams on the floor. Although he has needed some extra help peeling and tearing because of his fine motor challenges, he has improved and used a pair of scissors when needed, gaining confidence in both his ideas and ability to execute them along the way.
I basically let T do whatever the hell he wants with the painter's tape, and since it doesn't hurt surfaces, it is no big deal. As a side-note, this is basically my philosophy with everything right now. If my kid wants to cover his entire body with washable markers, so be it. If he wants to laminate for an hour each day, then fine. If we use a whole bag of dried pasta and kool-aid to make colored dry noodles and then throw them out the following day, alright then.
In my opinion, now is not the time to force the kids to learn academics if they are resisting it. I believe this will be a long haul, but also believe that the kids and parents will settle into a new equilibrium in due time. Personally, I let go of the expectation of a normal learning trajectory for my son about eight months ago, so in some ways that has been freeing. Of course, I understand that people are under immense pressure for school expectations and that they don't want their kid to fall behind.
But what I have learned by parenting a differently-wired kid with severe Sensory Processing Disorder - a child who is and likely will be behind to different degrees throughout his life - is that you cannot force a kid to learn when they are not ready. Nothing will be learned, absorbed, or retained if the kid is in panic mode or super anxious. I imagine this is true for all kids and now is certainly an anxious time for everyone. So at this point - early in the quarantine, while we are all getting our bearings - I am letting go of the worries about academic learning and focusing on wellness for the family unit. Not just the kids, but for the whole family unit. More on that another day.
My son does an hour of independent play each day as part of his schedule, while the baby is napping in the morning. Three months ago, I did not think this was possible. In fact, I would have bet my life on this not being possible. But my husband and I decided that T had to learn to play on his own for family sanity. Furthermore, he did it at school, so he would have to do it at home.
Of course, the first half a dozen times when set the visual timer he would cry and tantrum the entire time. We started small - first 10 minutes, then 15. But we did not relent, remained calm, and gently explained that he could do it, we were there to help, but it was what needed to happen because mom and dad had other responsibilities. He was not the only one in the family that mattered. And when he realized it was non-negotiable, he finally gave in. And like anything with a differently-wired kid, we need supports to make it work - the visual timer, scheduling it directly before a "star choice" (he gets to choose an activity with a parent to do anything besides use a screen) or screen time, and setting him up with an activity, like a coloring book, art, or a grandparent on FaceTime.
This independent play is absolutely necessary because now that we have no childcare, higher demands for sterile spaces, and need to get food on the table, there is no give in the system. Because all meals are in the house, I have to use this time to do dishes, prepare food, and wipe down and sterilize high traffic areas. Sometimes I even chop vegetables next to T while he laminates. That is, of course, when I am not glued to Gov. Cuomo's daily updates from the front lines.
Getting outside every day
No matter what, even if it is snowing, even if it raining, I get the kids outside every day. Even if it is in the car with the window down, or just for ten minutes in the backyard. We are lucky enough to live in a place where it is easy to do this while also social distancing - the perks of living in a rural area - but I have found this key for everyone's sanity. This might mean just going for a drive with the window down, or doing a scavenger hunt out the window from a city apartment with the fresh air coming in. It also reminds me of the beauty in the world, the renewal of spring, and the cycles of life. That this too shall pass, just like a long and dark winter. .
Privilege and gratitude
And finally a note on privilege, or through another lens, gratitude. As I write the post above I am acutely aware of my privilege. The ability for my husband - an essential, executive-level white-collar, cis-gender, white male worker - to work comfortably from a home that is large enough to accommodate an impromptu office space. A financial position that allows us to purchase things like laminating machines and painter's tape and to have a car that can take us to outdoor spaces. To be able to afford for me to be that 1950's housewife, because while it is not my preference, nor was it my expectation in life, I have the privilege of focusing only on caring for the home and my nuclear family because we have enough income for me to do so. And of course all of the other things like internet and Ipads and education and information and space. (I could write a treatise on structural inequality in this country, and in fact this was part of my academic focus in my previous life, but I will spare you).
I wish I could do more. I wish I knew how. My heart is breaking for so many people and families right now. So I will focus my prayers on gratitude and safety for those working on the front lines, and monetary donations for those who are not as fortunate as I am.