When the coronavirus outbreak hit New York City, I was terrified. I work for a social service agency in an office building in lower Manhattan, and I was in a panic over being exposed and, even worse, bringing the virus home to my children. My older son Trey is 13 and on the Autism Spectrum, and my daughter Aja, who is 8, were both still in school at the time. I had been advocating to work from home for more than a week because of an underlying autoimmune condition — I received no response. I had to make an executive decision for the safety of my family. I decided on a Friday afternoon that I would not go back to the office. By the following Tuesday, all non-essential workers were ordered to stay home.
There was an initial period of adjustment. My husband works in law enforcement so as a first responder he was quarantined from all of us out of an abundance of caution. While this new normal allowed me the opportunity to spend more time with the kids, I had to reconcile the anxiety I was feeling transitioning from social worker to teacher, all while trying to keep them safe. There was no hiding from the daily news reports of people getting sick and dying from the coronavirus by the hundreds each day.
Trey was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Mixed Receptive Expressive-Language Disorder at five years old. Autistic children are used to having a set routine and the lockdown threw a major monkey wrench into his. I had so many questions: how would he adjust to not taking the bus to school in the morning? Not seeing his classmates or teachers? How did he feel about the coronavirus? Did he fully understand how dangerous it is?
I had to reconcile the anxiety I was feeling transitioning from social worker to teacher, all while trying to keep them safe. There was no hiding from the daily news reports of people getting sick and dying from the coronavirus by the hundreds each day.
Trey struggled to speak in full sentences and interact with other kids his age as a child. Being a teenager in middle school, he has made tremendous strides verbally, and it is more important than ever that he continue to socialize. I feared the lack of camaraderie with his peers would make him regress. How would I do my work and fill in the gaps in a day where he would normally be occupied in a classroom? I was used to saving the lives of other children in the foster care system, but now taking care of Trey's educational and emotional needs demanded that I utilize my skills in multitasking more than ever.
A typical day in the Samuels' household begins with our morning prayer. On certain days, after the kids get ready for school, they would both help me prepare breakfast. Before the pandemic hit, this was a sweet routine I shared with Trey. Being that my grandmother lived with us, he was raised with Jamaican traditions. Everyday, the scents of warm, delicious spices and good, home-cooked meals fill the air. His love for food is rooted in the different Caribbean cuisine he experiences.
After he eats, Trey makes sure to log into his remote learning site exactly at 8 AM each morning. I allow him the space to complete his work independently while periodically checking in on him. Before his school transitioned to Google classrooms, Trey was still afforded the services of his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). He has a set schedule for speech therapy and his communication counseling session. Both of these sessions are held with a group of his classmates. For half an hour a day, he is able to see and talk with his friends. The teachers do a great job of asking open-ended questions that allow them to converse. Still, 30 minutes is completely different from 8 hours, and eating lunch in our dining room is not the same as the school cafeteria.
One saving grace has been Trey's love of music. Autistic kids' physical disability on the surface tend to heighten some other abilities. Trey has the extraordinary talent to hear music. He and his sister were taking music lessons before the crisis and continue to do so online. It was vital for us to foster his talent, so he plays the guitar, piano, drums, and violin. We have a keyboard set up in our living room and Trey would sit in front of it at random times of the day and play gospel songs by ear. It became clear that music functions also as a type of therapy for him.
Our family was dealt another devastating blow when my grandmother died of congestive heart failure on April 7th in our home. While Trey looked sad, he did not show any outward display of emotion. He had never experienced a loss of this magnitude. Rooted in the pandemic was the vast reality that a conversation about life and death was necessary. How would I communicate something so heartbreaking to a child whose smile filled a room? The death of our matriarch was yet another interruption to his daily routine.
Rooted in the pandemic was the vast reality that a conversation about life and death was necessary. How would I communicate something so heartbreaking to a child whose smile filled a room?
Trey and my grandma had a special bond that was unexplainable. Despite not showing the emotion to display his anguish, I would observe him wandering in and out of her room. My first instinct was to protect him from my pain, however I realized showing my vulnerability could help him understand the gravity of the moment. Still while Aja and I cried for days, his grief came in the form of physical pain such as headaches and stomach aches. One morning he helped me make French toast, and in that simple task I saw the joy return to his face. Trey says he wants to be a chef, and it is his love of food that has allowed him to return to a sense of normalcy.
This pandemic will forever shape my family. Despite the added responsibility, it afforded me the time to reconnect with Trey. I was allowed to pause and reflect on his personal growth and learned that he is not as fragile as I thought.
Three Tips for Parents who are Homeschooling
With the uncertainty of the pandemic and the excessive loss of life that has ravaged our communities, we are grateful for the opportunity to be together during these troubling times. I suggest taking a few minutes out of your day to come together as a family and count your blessings. Every morning my family holds a prayer call where we read scriptures, sing songs, and each member says a personal prayer to God thanking Him for all He has done for us.
My first instinct was to protect him from my pain, however I realized showing my vulnerability could help him understand the gravity of the moment.
We are so concerned about our children that sometimes we forget to do the little things for ourselves like wash our own hair, exercise, or rest. It is important for kids to see that you are taking care of yourself. They are taking the lead from you and watching how you are navigating through this crisis.
While getting schoolwork done is a priority, it is also important to spend leisure time together. On Friday nights and weekends, we either watch movies on Disney+ or play board games. On a nice day, we allow the kids to ride their scooters. The goal is to allow kids to be themselves as much as possible since their outdoor activities are limited.
This article was originally published June 11, 2020.
WRITTEN BYTracy-Ann Samuels