Ask the Experts

Q: ADHD, Autism, and Anxiety are Upending Our Efforts to Homeschool While Working from Home!

Students with ADHD and autism are no longer receiving their typical educational services. They are struggling through e-learning while their exasperated parents juggle work and homeschooling. Is it any wonder anxiety is spiking? Here is advice for creating a safer place at home from an expert who is also the father of three sons with ADHD and autism.

Q: “I have ADHD, as do my 11-year-old and 15-year old, who is also on the spectrum. We’ve been following the shelter-in-place directive for three weeks now and the novelty has worn off. Online learning continues to be a challenge for various reasons. I work full-time and am trying as best I can to keep up with the demands of my job and oversee their school work. It’s a nightmare and my patience is starting to wearing thin. My kids are picking up on this and seem more anxious than ever. Help!” —Stressed Out Mom in Illinois

My Facebook newsfeed is filled with posts from overwhelmed parents and stressed-out teachers who are trying to transition to eLearning. Many adults tell me they’re on the verge of having a nervous breakdown. As the father of three boys with ADHD and autism, I know firsthand what a bumpy ride this is for everyone. Most of us aren’t teachers and did not sign up to homeschool our children with learning differences — many of whom thrive at school with support from trained educators.

Parents of children on the spectrum are definitely seeing more meltdowns so know that you’re not alone! Here’s some advice.

First, it’s important to recognize how confusing and upsetting all of this is for your children. Much of the difficult behavior that parents see is being triggered by complicated emotions going on underneath the surface. My wife and I are grappling with some pretty serious emotional upheaval in our home, too. One way we help our sons make sense of the confusion is by checking in periodically — daily would be ideal, but not always realistic — with a heart-to-heart conversation.

A word of warning: These conversations aren’t easy and they often elicit tears — yours and theirs — but they are therapeutic nonetheless. Crying isn’t always a terrible thing. It pushes stress out of the body and calms you down.

[Click to Read: Are You Crisis Schooling? Here’s Advice]

Conversation Starters for Children with Autism and ADHD

Start by letting your kids know the purpose of the conversation — to help them sort through their feelings. People on the spectrum really need to know what’s expected of them. If your kids drag their feet, set the stage by sharing a few of your feelings and frustrations, which communicates to them that grownups are struggling, too. This is new territory for everyone. Let them know that this designated conversation is a safe space for sharing honest emotions – a no-judgement zone.

Nationwide, the level of distress is high because no one can say with any confidence when the lockdown will end, who will get sick, and when life will return to some normal (whatever that is). It’s impacting everyone — friends, teachers, coaches, and parents, too.

When you make space for intimate connections, astonishing things can happen. Last week, my youngest, age 15, made a startling observation. In this sacred space, he told us he lacks the language to explain his feelings. This was a HUGE revelation for him and for us. He told us he knows he feels badly but can’t put it into words. Like many people with autism, my son is an expert of distraction.1  He’s developed fidgets and all sorts of ways to avoid difficult emotions by keeping his mind constantly distracted.

But here’s the thing: If you can’t think about your emotions, how can you work through them? By sitting together with his family, he’s learning through observation. When the family talks, he hears the language we use and gains insight into feelings that didn’t previously pierce his awareness. Doing this consistently is helping him find a new path for self-awareness, too.

[Could Your Child Have Autism? Take This Self-Test]

Resist the temptation to simply ask your teen how he’s doing; instead, initiate a frank conversation about emotions, challenges, and triumphs. Why? When you ask your child how he’s doing, you’re giving him two choices: He can either tell you he’s fine (when he isn’t) and move on or he could provide information that could also lead to more questions and maybe criticism from you. This experience is emotionally overwhelming.

Yes, many of us are justifiably worried about our children falling behind academically and socially through distance learning. In our worry, it’s tempting to focus too much on the task and say things like, “Well, if you had done X differently you would have had Y result. Or, did you remember the (fill in the blank) strategy I taught you…” Don’t. Your children hear this as criticism and right now it’s just too much.

Instead, let your child hear loud and clear that you recognize and feel the difficult emotions of the day, and you are relaxing your expectations for yourself and for your children. Hearing this can be hugely transformational for your children. Then take the time to wait and listen; answers will emerge.

Additional Resources

  1. Challenging Behaviors Toolkit from Autism Speaks.
  2. Check out this comprehensive guide for uncertain times developed by The University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute Autism Team. The guide has visual tools, support strategies, coping and calming skills, hygiene tips, daily schedules and routines, communication activities, and more.
  3. Crisis Resources are also available from the Autism Society.
  4. For younger children with autism, the Seaver Autism Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City has put together a list of activities to build all-important social skills during lockdown.

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1Samson AC, Huber O, & Gross JJ (2012). Emotion regulation in Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism. Emotion, 12(4), 659–665.

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