Lean into facts.
As a young child, our son was very literal, as are many, if not all, autistic people. When we told him that his beloved grandfather who had died would always live in his heart, he was confused. He asked, “Does that mean he’s buried in my stomach?”
To this day he tries to understand idioms, metaphors and sarcasm. He needs specific information. When we were first locked down, he refused to take a walk in our quiet suburb, insisting, “The virus is everywhere.” He’d watched us wipe doorknobs and scrub groceries, heard us talk about schools and businesses closing, and concluded that the coronavirus was a miasm floating right on our doorstep. My mistake. I assumed he knew how a virus spread, so I didn’t explain it explicitly.
One night waiting for “danger!” To go on the air, he found out about the rising number of Covid-related deaths at the end of the evening news. This time, I stepped in to assure him that while people get sick or even die, scientists are working diligently to find the right drugs, and that soon he will be able to get the vaccine just like his annual flu vaccination in autumn. We often rethink the rules about masks, hand washing and being at least three feet away from others. He gets it. Despite all the sensory problems he’s been dealing with since childhood, he wears his mask meticulously.
Just as I once watched from the sidelines how many so-called autism remedies such as secretin, chelation therapy or swimming with dolphins have proven to be ineffective or even harmful, I am sitting in debates about dubious Covid treatments. I trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, when he says the vaccine will be widely available by spring. In the meantime, I keep reassuring my son (and myself) that this won’t last forever, even though it often feels like it is.
Find your comfort.
After my son’s diagnosis, I often had to remind myself that my fears for his future did not rob me of my joys in the present. I didn’t know the term for it then, but I practiced mindfulness. I wore emotional blinkers and tried to focus each day only on what was right in front of me. I still try to hug small, fleeting things every day: the heady scent of Casablanca lilies that bloomed on my birthday; thanks to Disney + can finally see “Hamilton”; the satisfying cracking of placing the final piece in a 1,000 piece puzzle.
What gives my son the most comfort right now is watching “Family Feud” and “Deal or No Deal” on the Game Show Network, and that’s fine. I indulged in episodes of “Love It or List It” and these lovely “Property Brothers” on HGTV. House and cooking shows offer comfort by making them feel safe and predictable when so much else isn’t the case. At the start of the shutdown in March, when flour was difficult to obtain, I still managed to bake so many banana breads that a friend threatened to intervene against me. Maybe I’m still overly stressful baking, but nothing keeps me in the moment (or makes my son happier) than the buttery aroma of pumpkin chocolate chip cookies wafting out of the oven. Recreational eating is a time-honored coping strategy that I follow for long.
I tend to be a disaster, but now I am more aware than ever of the way my son is taking his clues from me. Children absorb our fears and our way of regulating our emotions. If I keep calm, he (usually) will too. Years ago, when my car suddenly stopped in the middle of a busy street, I forced myself not to panic. I pulled him by my waist and said to him, “We’re going to have an adventure in a tow truck!” Framing spooky experiences as “adventures” has taken us through many challenging experiences, including eight days without electricity, heat or internet during the superstorm Sandy in 2012.