HAVERTOWN, Pa. (CBS) — The pandemic has impacted everyone, but especially children with special needs who do best when they follow a routine. Eyewitness News sat down with a Delaware County mom and her son to share at-home strategies every parent can use and to celebrate home-team heroes everywhere.
“He was used to having the bus come every day. He was used to having a certain routine at school,” mother Christine Kobielnik said.
Kobielnik has seen the upheaval COVID has created for her 18-year-old son, Patrick, who is autistic and non-verbal.
“He needed that structure,” Kobielnik said.
Pre-pandemic, Patrick had a steady schedule that included school and social activities. All of that came to a sudden stop in mid-March of last year.
“Being home and doing virtual and all of these different things was an enormous challenge for him,” Kobielnik said.
And like all children, the initial change took its toll.
“Truly it was boredom, just like anybody else,” Kobielnik said.
Nearly 12 months later, Kobielnik invited us into her home to spend an afternoon with Patrick and his home team of behavior therapists — a group she calls her lifeline — to share strategies for creating structure when most days can be anything but.
Mike Kiotis and Eric Sanderson work with Patrick six days a week, collaborating to create a programming wall that includes activities to keep Patrick’s mind stimulated when he’s not in class. Everything is accessible and all in one place.
Each day, they create a visual schedule of what is to come and set a timer at the start of every new activity.
“The importance of the timer and likewise with the visual schedule, to indicate to the learner that something is gonna change in their day. This is coming up, so that there are no curveballs,” Kiotis said.
Up first, table-top matching and brain exercises created with inexpensive craft store supplies. They work from simpler to more difficult tasks and offer positive reinforcement from start to finish.
“When we complete something, no matter how big or small, high fives, praise, make it fun,” Kiotis said.
Another important part of Patrick’s success is building in movement throughout his day, such as a simple walk around the block.
“This year, we’ve all been faced with being teachers and our kids go to school in our living rooms,” Danielle Stephanik said.
Stephanik oversees Patrick’s therapy and says these techniques can work for students of varying age and ability levels.
“Break things down into very simple steps, so first we are going to have our Zoom, then we are going to have lunch,” Stephanik said.
She also says it’s important parents reflect on our new normal.
“We’re all struggling, everyone is facing things we haven’t faced before,” Stephanik said.
It’s why Kobielnik wanted to tell her family’s story.
“Find joy, and finding joy for him is my goal,” she said.
And celebrate the Patricks, moms and dads and home teams everywhere whose support is anything but routine.
In addition to the ideas Kobielnik gave, here are several online resources — PAAutism.org; Autism Speaks; Delaware County Intermediate Unit; Greater Philadelphia Autism Society; Ascend Group; MusicWorks