Webinar series aids families with autistic children

Quarantine has been a difficult time for many people, but parents and siblings of children with autism face a unique situation. While their family members with autism are normally in programs designed to handle the challenges of growing up with autism, those services are no longer operating and families now have to handle these challenges themselves. 

In order to help families during this difficult time, The Oakland University Center for Autism (OUCA) has been hosting webinars to teach parents and siblings of children with autism how to help their family members during the pandemic.

“When this pandemic began sometime in March, we had so many families reach out because they were in crisis,” OUCA Director of Research Chaturi Edrisinha said. 

Along with needing to manage changes in their children’s behavior, families had to manage working and studying from home while taking care of their autistic family members. Since the OUCA was getting so many requests for help, the decision was made to virtually host a seminar series.

Seminars ran from June to August and were livestreamed around either noon or in the evening on the OUCA YouTube page. Viewers interacted with the speakers by using the text chat function. 

Topics ranged from how to set up routines, why routines are beneficial for children with autism, how to teach children with autism safe social media practices and how to use visuals as a behavioral support.

One major subject in the early days of the seminar was how to handle trauma.

“We had a number of folks in Detroit and Greater Detroit, African American families, who were losing loved ones and it was so hard to explain to kids with autism that grandmother had died and you could not visit them,” Edrisinha said. “There was no closure and it was a very difficult situation.”

While the seminars were mainly focused on parents and caregivers, the siblings of children with autism were not ignored.

“We recognized that — in all times but especially in the era of COVID — that the family unit has an even more essential role to play in their child’s education,” Abbigail Sievers, a seminar presenter and high school special education teacher, said.

Sievers’ own experiences growing up with siblings with special needs, along with her professional experience, helped shape her three sibling-focused seminars.

“I think a lot of times siblings can be a forgotten member of the person with autism’s team,” Sievers said. “Making sure they feel like they have a community and that their voice is heard, but also that their role as a sibling is validated is something that I found fun and really enjoyable during this time.”

Both parents and students provided the speakers with feedback, but siblings tended to be more willing to ask less sensitive questions. 

“[The questions siblings asked] were really good because that was something I did not anticipate,” Edrisinha said. “I did not expect those very candid and sincere questions, generally because with adults when you have questions they are a little bit more savvy and sophisticated. It was lovely and refreshing to be able to answer these genuine questions.”

While the series has ended, all of the seminars can be found on the OUCA YouTube page