This past year has had quite an impact on everyone, having to cope with social distancing, mask wearing and basically staying inside our own little bubbles. But it's been especially tough for those on the autism spectrum.

Julie Mower, executive director of The Phoenix Center in Nutley, a not-for-profit school serving the educational, behavioral and therapeutic needs of students ages 5 to 21 with autism and other disabilities, said it's important to be as clear as possible with them.

Reinforce the fact that here's the why. Why are we washing our hands more frequently? Why are we wearing the mask even a year later?

Mower said it's important to practice these protocols both at home and at school. Also at school, they are providing social stories, which is a visual way of sharing with those on the autism spectrum, what their expectations are and the why behind their doing.

In 2020, every school pivoted to 100% virtual learning in New Jersey when COVID-19 hit. Providing synchronous and asynchronous education throughout that time has been key and vital. Being creative on how to reach autistic students and ensuring that they're still maintaining and focusing in on their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals and objectives, making sure they're still customizing as best as possible have all been key during virtual learning.

Mower also said working with parents has been a unifying experience during the pandemic.

"We've been in the living rooms and kitchens of our families for a very long time, for about a year and that collaboration is really vitally important. We both need each other very much in order to make that partnership really work," she said.

Parents can help children on the autism spectrum cope with a post-COVID world and its changes, said Mower. Communication is key. Understanding one's child and his or her needs is very important.

While some students may need picture supports in order to understand the concept of wearing a mask and the why behind wearing a mask, others may only need to have a conversation about it. "Practice, practice, practice is vitally important," said Mower.

She said the spatial concept of social distancing can be an obstacle for those on the spectrum. For example, in a store there are circles on the floor that physically show people how to space out 6 feet apart. Mower said if we need that visual picture, imagine someone on the spectrum.

Young adults with these disabilities may need the concept to be taken a step further. So what does 6 feet look like? Is it the length of a car or the length of a dining room table? She said if someone stands on one end and the child stands on the other end, he or she can physically see the acceptable distance. Understanding that spatial relationship is very important.

Parents need to keep a routine with those on the spectrum as best as possible. Reinforce a child's homework routine. Mower said be sure to balance that with some fun, family activities that are fun and socially distant as well.

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