Kids with special needs and COVID-19

Families facing challenges, need to find support

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The impact of COVID-19 on children with special needs and their parents is immense.
Jerrod Brown, a Concordia professor who is the program director for the Master of Arts degree in human services with an emphasis on forensic behavioral health, has done most of his professional work around autism, developmental disorders, people on the spectrum and those with traumatic brain injury.
“If you are raising a child with special needs, and you don’t have the resources, it can be very stressful,” he said. “These families have been very impacted.”
He said a child with special needs may not understand why wearing a mask is beneficial. “Also, most individuals with neurodevelopmental issues have sensory deprivation, and it’s a struggle for them to wear masks.”
Brown added that for some children with special needs, being at home and out of school has been good. For others, it has been very stressful. “In some cases, the children have lost some of their verbal development. Anxiety and depression are very common.”
According to Brown, if all these topics are brought together, including children not sleeping well, having low energy and having a difficult time staying focused, the difficulty of raising special needs children during a pandemic cannot be over-emphasized. “You also have to take into account adults with neurodevelopmental disorders, who may be chronologically older, but function at the age of a six-year-old,” he said.
“Making good decisions is challenging for parents and teachers,” Brown acknowledged. “When these kids grow up, in some cases they may live in a group home, which can present a lot of challenges. The child may run away, which is dangerous enough. But now the child could run away without a mask and bring COVID-19 back to the group home and infect others. We are in uncharted territory.”
Brown said that at Concordia, a graduate program offering a series of classes on “Trauma, Resilience and Self-Care Strategy” is digging into research in this area.

Connections
He said there is a lot of isolation for children with special needs during the pandemic, and parents may wonder how their children can connect with friends. “Do you allow them over? How much connection do you do online?”
Brown cited other concerns for parents. Do they send their child back to school or have the child stay home and do online learning?
The stressors may be different if the household has two parents or a single parent, according to Brown. “The key is to create some balance, because parents are burned out, exhausted and more vulnerable. The healthier and more resilient the parents are, the more they can support their child.”
There are associations in the Twin Cities that can provide support. Brown urged parents of children with special needs to find a network. “It is totally okay to say you need help,” he said. “Some parents may feel alone and isolated, and they need to realize these feelings they are experiencing are shared by others.”

Involving child without special needs
Brown also expressed concern over the child in the household without special needs. “Parents often dedicate the most time to the child with special needs, and the other child may feel left out,” he noted. “Evidence shows this can cause problems for the other child, and you may want to get support for the whole family system.”
He said that families may enjoy sports activities together or gardening or equine activities. “Go for a walk as a family, even if it is just once a week,” he stated. “If you focus on the stress day in and day out, it is so hard.”
Brown said that winter will find more families spending time inside, but there are also things to do as a family during the cold weather. “Find outlets on TV, find some hobbies you can work on and get your kids involved with decision making on the hobby, if it’s age appropriate. “

Consider a coach or therapist
Staying current on the research coming out and how COVID-19 can affect child development can be very helpful, in Brown’s opinion. He suggested that if parents are short of time, they hire a coach who understands this information, or a therapist, seek education outlets or check some of the videos on YouTube. “It is good to be more aware and more able to deal with this complex issue,” he said.
He said the graduate online courses on “Trauma, Resilience and Self-Care” are open to so many people: professionals working in social services, criminal justice, with runaway youth or homeless populations. “Students who just completed a degree, someone making a career change, or someone who has been in the field and wants to enhance their career can sign up,” Brown said. “Some things in the courses are COVID-19 related, some things deal with trauma. And what do we do about it?”
Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series with professor Jerrod Brown on the psychological impacts and trauma associated with COVID-19 that is affecting members of the helping profession. Find parts one and two on our website.

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