How Having a Child With Autism Helps Me Ride Out the Pandemic


As a young child, our son was very literal, like many, though certainly not all, autistic people. When we told him his beloved grandfather who’d 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 struggles to understand idioms, metaphors or sarcasm. He needs concrete information. When we first went into lockdown, he refused to take a walk in our quiet, suburban neighborhood, insisting, “The virus is everywhere.” He’d watched us wiping doorknobs and scrubbing groceries, heard us talking about schools and businesses closing, and concluded that the coronavirus was a miasma hovering right outside our front door. My fault. I’d assumed he knew how a virus spreads, so hadn’t explained it explicitly.

One night, waiting for “Jeopardy!” to come on the air, he caught the end of the evening news about the soaring number of Covid-related deaths. This time, I jumped in to reassure him that while people are getting sick, even dying, scientists are working diligently to find the right medicines, and that soon he will ba able to get the vaccine, just like his annual fall flu shot. We frequently revisit the rules about masks, hand-washing and standing at least six feet away from others. He gets it. Despite all the sensory issues he’s been navigating since childhood, he’s meticulous about wearing his mask.

Just as I once watched from the sidelines as many so-called autism cures, such as secretin, chelation therapy or swimming with dolphins, were proven ineffective or even harmful, I’m sitting out debates on dubious Covid treatments. I trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, when he says the vaccine will be widely obtainable by spring. Meanwhile, I continue to reassure my son (and myself) that this won’t last forever, even though it often feels as if it will.

After my son’s diagnosis, I often needed to remind myself not to let my fears for his future rob me of my joys in the present. I didn’t know the term for it then, but I was practicing mindfulness. I wore emotional blinders, trying to focus only on what was directly in front of me, one day at a time. I still try to embrace small, ephemeral things daily: the heady scent of Casablanca lilies that bloomed on my birthday; finally being able to see “Hamilton,” thanks to Disney+; the satisfying snap of placing the last piece in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

What most comforts my son currently is watching “Family Feud” and “Deal or No Deal” on the Game Show Network, and that’s fine. I’ve indulged in back-to-back episodes of “Love It or List It,” and those handsome “Property Brothers” on HGTV myself. Home and cooking shows offer solace because they feel safe and predictable, when so much else doesn’t. At the start of the shutdown in March, when flour was hard to score, I still managed to bake so many loaves of banana bread that a friend threatened to run an intervention on me. Maybe I’m still overindulging in stress baking, but nothing keeps me more in the moment (or makes my son happier) than the buttery aroma of pumpkin chocolate chip cookies wafting from the oven. Recreational eating is a time-honored coping strategy I’m embracing for the duration.

I tend to be a catastrophizer, but now, more than ever, I’m aware of how my son takes his cues from me. Kids absorb our fears, as well as our ways of regulating our emotions. If I stay calm, he (usually) will too. Years ago, when my car suddenly sputtered to a halt in the middle of a busy street, I forced myself not to panic. I hoisted him on my hip, and told him, “We’re going to have an adventure riding in a tow truck!” Framing scary experiences as “adventures” has gotten us through many challenging experiences, including eight days without electricity, heat or internet during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.



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