World Autism Day: how families cope with coronavirus isolation

Yola dancing, backyard digs and daily routine help children through uncertain times

Abu Dhabi, April 17, 2019.  Michele Ziolkowski has written a sequel to a fictional story about her Autistic son Suhail and his superpowers. -- Portrait of Michele and her son Suhail at Qasr Al Hosn where the book takes place.  
Victor Besa/The National 
Section:  BZ 
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias
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Reem Al Hajeri explained the coronavirus to her autistic son with a story she wrote starring his favourite video game character from Minecraft.

Then she gave Abdullah, 11, a tight hug and explained if they went outside, the virus could cling to him like a hug.

With his understanding of the importance of working from home, Abdullah leads his siblings and cousins in a new routine of homeschooling, crafts, cooking and evening rounds of traditional dancing with toy rifles.

Abdullah dressed in blue on Thursday to mark World Autism Awareness Day but otherwise, he stuck to his new routine of home schooling.

This year, parents and children are coping with a whole new set of challenges as families self-isolate to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Abdullah Al Rumaithi, 11, who will be celebrating World Autism Day

A number of adjustments can ease the transition, said Dr Pam Olsen, acting executive director of Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Special Education Operated by the New England Centre for Children.

A regular bedtime, a dedicated schoolwork area and a consistent schedule for the day will help to establish a routine, which is perhaps the most important thing at this time of uncertainty and change.

“Establishing a routine for home schooling is important for all children, just as establishing a routine for adults working from home is important,” said Dr Olsen. “For many children with autism, routine is even more important.”

A visual representation of the daily schedule can help.

Ms Al Hajeri involved Abdullah in setting his routine and he works at the same time that's his siblings and cousins study online. His workspace is a table beside his father’s desk, who is working from home during the pandemic.

“We have timetables that are the routine for everybody in the home,” said Ms Al Hajeri. “We cannot separate him because he is autistic. [But] autistic or not, he is a child, and he should have a schedule and a home routine like his siblings.”

Parents should use visual aids to explain to children why it is important to wash hands and study at home instead of school during the pandemic.

Autistic or not, he is a child, and he should have a schedule

To do this, there are a number of online resources, like, which has social stories to show children what is happening. The World Health Organisation also has cartoon explanations about the virus for children.

A quiet corner in the house, with fluffy toys and soft fabrics, can be a welcomed space to avoid sensory overload.

Every family will find a different rhythm.

Michele Ziolkowski and Abdulla Al Sharqi teach their son Suhail, 13, by turning everyday situations into learning opportunities.

“I think one of the most difficult aspects was the abrupt shift from Suhail being in school, where he receives a very high level of education, to being at home in an environment with a lot less structure,” said Mr Al Sharqi.

Ms Ziolkowski, an archaeologist, is creating an archaeological excavation site in their sandpit and plans to help Suhail create a video about his DVD collection.

“One thing our home learning programme doesn’t look like is school,” she said. “I have to be realistic and know that I won’t be able to recreate the same atmosphere, nor can I sustain the energy levels necessary to keep Suhail engaged in his school work for prolonged periods.”

Fun activities benefit children and parents alike.

“Parents should not worry about being perfect teachers,” said Dr Olsen. “This is a learning experience for everyone.”

Every moment is an opportunity for children to learn.

“All children, including those with autism, can learn incidentally, whether it be through playing a game, making a pizza or sandwich, hearing new words spoken by parents or others, or just by observing the world around them,” said Dr Olsen.

Parents can take advantage of support offered by local schools and communities.  For example, the Mohammed bin Rashid Centre organises Instagram Live sessions, parents virtual coffee meetups on Zoom and remote coaching. Some of its programmes are available even to families not enrolled in the centre.

Most importantly, parents take breaks and share duties with other family members, said Dr Vedrana Mladina, the Counselling Team Leader at New York University Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s like Mission Impossible but we do have to make that effort, to have that extra patience not only with children but also with ourselves,” said Dr Mladina. “Family members can feel a bit isolated and alone in their struggle. Just be compassionate with each other.”