* Dr Adrienne Robek, a Qatar-based behavior analyst says parents must teach self-help skills to a child with autism at home amid the pandemic
The world marks World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 (today) to raise awareness about and to recognise the rights of persons with autism. Children with autism have become more vulnerable and neglected since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout world over.
As the pandemic refuses to die down, parents of children with autism are finding it harder to take good care of the children and stop their very possible regression as therapy centres and schools remained closed till July 2020. Though the centres have been allowed to carry on one-on-one therapy session for children with special needs, the parents still have a lot to cover and catch up with. There is a dire need for continuity of therapy sessions for children on the autism spectrum.
The UN is observing the day with the theme ‘Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World.’ The UN message on the day explains the need for equal employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum, while highlighting that persons with autism have long faced many inequalities, which have only been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
To discuss further the issues faced by both parents and teachers related to the kids with autism and the theme of the UN, Gulf Times recently spoke to Dr Adrienne Robek, who is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and provides Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) services for people on autism spectrum. With a doctorate in behavioral psychology from The City University of New York, Dr Robek provides an array of services that range from diagnostics to the development of ABA programmes. The US national developed two home-based ABA programmes in New York City providing high quality services to hundreds of families who have children with autism.
Dr Robek has been in Qatar since 2013 and is currently working as the clinical director at Child Development Center for Special Needs. She is the author of several publications including My Child Has Autism: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals. “The pandemic has been very disastrous both for parents and their kids so far. Even prior to the pandemic, such parents were under enormous pressure. Now, having their children all the day at home and lack of the structure have given a new dimension to the difficulties they have to face every day,” she noted.
Responding to a question regarding how the parents can make up for what their children have lost during the health crisis, Dr Robek said: “I do not think that there is a way to bring the year  back. I see a lot of parents struggling. Many of them are inconsolable. They keep thinking that it is their responsibility to somehow get the same level of structure in their child’s life that existed pre-pandemic. I keep telling the parents and they need to give themselves a break. Things are not ideal right now for them and there is nothing one can do much about that.”
There are however certain changes that the parents need to make in their routine with a child on autism spectrum. “I think they need to pace themselves. They need to teach the kid for an hour or so and then take a break as the kid is at home all the time. Then, again they can come back to play as a therapist with the kid. A few hours of engagement in a day is better than nothing.
“The parents need to get their child engaged in meaningful activities. If a child is having a hard time communicating, they should work on language goals. If the child is non-verbal, they can work with pictures and sign language. They should teach the kids how to play with toys appropriately. They can also teach them basic self-help skills like how to eat with utensils, how to wash their hands, and how to brush their teeth. In many cases, children with autism do not follow instructions, so their parents can use a reward system and hand-over-hand prompting to teach them new skills.”
Speaking about the UN message on the Autism Day, Dr Robek said that the inclusion has to start with the foundation. “Inclusion needs to begin at a young age where society in general and the governments in particular will provide adequate services for these children. They can learn the necessary skills and then go to a mainstream school. As far as therapists are concerned, enabling children with autism to reach their full potential is a form of inclusion.”
The specialist said that the problems caused by the pandemic for the children with autism cannot be solved by individuals. It is a public health crisis. The governments of all countries need to help these children by providing adequate services for them.