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 banned, he refused to take a walk in our quiet suburb, insisting, “The virus is everywhere.” He’d watched us wiping doorknobs and scrubbing 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 he will soon 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 had since childhood, he wears his mask meticulously.
Just as I once observed 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 engaged 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, although 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; can finally see “Hamilton” thanks to Disney +; the satisfying crack of placing the final piece in a 1,000 piece puzzle.
What comforts my son most of all 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 provide comfort because they make them feel safe and predictable when so much else isn’t. At the beginning 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 preoccupied with stress 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 how my son is taking his clues from me. Children absorb our fears as well as our way of regulating our emotions. If I keep calm, so will he (usually). 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.