A Sabahan mom's journey in coping through the COVID-19 lockdown with her autistic son

By Eve Bandusena | Writer for Parents Avenue

How COVID-19 affected Stella’s family

For Stella O Kunjan, raising her nine-year-old son, Gabriel who’s diagnosed with mild autism and speech delay during a global pandemic has been an utterly unique experience. 

“Gabriel experiences a lack of eye contact and focus. He’s limited in his speech and falls short in social interactions. However, he rarely has temper tantrums and meltdowns which is a trait accompanied in autistic kids,” Stella explains. 

While the lockdown has influenced each child differently, Stella expresses her gratitude that it hasn’t affected Gabriel’s behavior negatively and shares that he even lightly perceives the lockdown as another school holiday for him.

However, the sudden disruption of his normal routine left him longing for his daily activities and especially misses being outdoors.

“He did ask to return to school, to go to the playground, to the beach and the shopping mall, he even wanted to meet his therapist teacher,” Stella mentions.

 “Although he may not fully understand the whole situation, he willingly puts effort into comprehending it. The good thing about him is that he’s able to adapt in almost all situations.”

One of the defining characteristics of a child living with autism is their need for routine and structure which Gabriel himself greatly benefits from. This was provided by his school at Sekolah Pendidikan Khas, SK Bukit Padang. But, when schools were shut down, his parents coped by focusing on replicating the structure and routine from their home-front.

She added that routine and structure helps Gabriel create self-control in terms of his emotions and that it helps to disciplines him. 

“At school, they practice structural activities such as getting in assembly on Mondays, taking their shoes on and putting them in the rack, putting their bag in their designated places, and so forth,” Stella points out. 

“I can say reproducing the order that he needed was successful, given that we have been giving Gabriel routine and structural activities since he started his therapy when he was four years old.”

How special needs schools have adapted during the MCO

Like Gabriel, children with developmental disabilities have a different set of needs compared to those who are typically developing. Some may require more individualized attention from their teachers, assistive technology, and support.

In this case, adapting to online-learning during the movement control order (MCO) for both special needs schools and special needs students has presented certain challenges because of the absence of hands-on learning.

“Children with special needs are easily distracted. They learn through face-to-face activities to maintain their focus and to upgrade their motor skills. With this, teachers can monitor their behaviors and in which area they lack,” Stella says.

“The number of students is mostly not more than ten in a class for special needs school. So that the teachers able to focus on each of the student priorities in terms of study and behavior.”

As for education continuity during the MCO, Stella adds that teachers at Sekolah Pendidikan Khas, SK Bukit Padang hands out worksheets and homework projects through Google Classroom. These assignments strictly require the guidance of parents.

“The most important thing is the co-operation between parents and teachers. So far, my son and his teachers will send two to three homework a week per subject. Sometimes, he’ll even be given home projects such as making scrapbooks or greeting cards for certain occasions.”

With any parent who has found themselves becoming sudden teachers during the pandemic, Stella experienced obstacles in figuring out how to effectively reach Gabriel through teaching.

“The real challenge is how do I, as a parent, assume this role when I have no background or training in teaching? How do I teach my child the way teachers do in the classroom? I always wondered how teachers at Gabriel’s school taught children with developmental disabilities.”

“Once in a while, I find it hard to get ideas for new activities as I have been preparing it nearly every day. My son tends to get easily bored from repeating the same activities.”

Managing a family in the time of a pandemic

“During this pandemic, I always thought about when the situation improve? Can we all live normally like before? The first thing we did when our prime minister announced the first MCO in March, we bought our food stocks enough to last for a few weeks,” Stella shares.

With Gabriel being the only boy in the house, Stella splits tasks with her husband.

“Mostly I will do the home-schooling part for our boy. House chores like cooking, laundry, cleaning the house, we will take turns. I am lucky that my husband is always helping me with the house chores.”

“Thankfully, we both can go through this MCO together with no problem. My husband still needs to go to work as he is working with the health ministry. But sometimes, he able to work from home when there is no requirement for him to travel to work,” Stella imparts.

As partners, Stella and her husband did experience frustrations about the continual extension of the MCO. 

“It is frustrating that we can’t resume our daily lives as normal before where we can bring Gabriel anywhere without worrying about the COVID-19 catching onto our family.”

As COVID-19 has imposed a burden to families everywhere, Stella sticks to practicing gratitude and to appreciate the simple pleasures in life that aren’t lost to the pandemic.

“Despite the circumstances, I feel grateful that our family can be together every day, especially during breakfast and lunch. And, during this MCO period, Gabriel is progressing well in his speech,” she happily says.

When asked if she has any messages to convey for parents raising children with special needs, she leaves us with this gem.

“Dear parents, especially to parents with special need kids, focus on the positive side of your child despite her or, his disabilities, get group support because it can be a beneficial way to share advice and to meet other parents dealing with similar challenges, stay consistent and give it time for your child to grow.”