Well, this winter we had another visit from the chicken pox fairy. This time all four of us managed to succumb within a short 24 hours! Luckily Mr Dave managed to fight off the virus after getting the cold symptoms, and he kept us going in the meantime. Let’s be clear here: all four of us are vaccinated against chicken pox. Due to my quirky health, I am unable to acquire immunity to this particular virus, so I have had it 13 times in the last 16 years! On the plus side, I have never had shingles, which I believe is truly terrible. Being exposed so frequently means that both Mr Dave and the boys have had their fair share of itchy spots as well. This is the first time that we have all come down with it at the same time, so I guess we all caught it from the same person? Anyway, varicella zoster is obviously still experienced in our community (despite the vaccination program), and is still a common childhood illness.
Chicken pox in a family with autism and other sensory issues can be particularly tricky to deal with. Mr 6 is incredibly sensitive to tactile sensation and temperature changes, so I was very relieved that he only got a mild case this time. Three spots in total (one in his mouth), mild cold symptoms that only lasted about 36 hours, and being off his food for a few days is as bad as it got. He returned to school while I was still in bed, suffering from fevers, shooting pains, and an ever-increasing number of spots! Mr 9 however presented with more typical symptoms, meaning many itchy spots on his back, arms, legs and face adding to his already itchy eczema. He was also torn between his need to be alone in his bedroom (his modus operandi when unwell), and his need to be pressed up against me for comfort…..
Why is Chicken Pox so Tricky for Sensory Kids?
We all know that every child is different. But many kids with sensory issues:
- experience heightened sensitivity to touch/tactile sensation, so can be more itchy.
- show differences in pain sensations (heightened or lowered), so may not know when they have scratched to bleeding point, or may feel the rash as distressingly painful instead of itchy.
- sensory processing issues may make instructions about not scratching confusing/hard to process/hard to retain in working memory/overwhelming.
- nose blowing can be particularly offensive to the child, meaning essential hygiene practices are compromised and ineffective in stopping the spread of the germ.
- may have less control over scratching, especially if they are habitual scratchers.
What Was Our Priority?
I have to be honest. Stopping the boys from scratching was my lowest priority. My priority through those uncomfortable days was to help the boys cope well, while not over-taxing myself. I was quite ill, and knew how long it could take me to recover. The end result that I was chasing: for us to get better efficiently. For this to happen, we had to convalesce with minimum stress!
So here are my top 10 tips for achieving that.
My 10 Essential Tips for Coping with Chicken Pox in Your Sensory Child
1. Keep the kids occupied.
While their minds were busy, they were not thinking about how itchy they were, or how sick they felt. It also helped to stop irritability from boiling over into sibling fights, which none of us had the energy for. This meant:
- relaxing the rules around screen time. The boys played their iPads a lot.
- choosing things to watch together, so we could lay on the lounges and be entertained.
- When Mr 6 returned to school, and Mr 9 and I were alone, popcorn plus the first Harry Potter movie took up a good chunk of the day. (I had been saving this for a special occasion now that he has finished the 4th book in the series).
- making the effort to sit in a chair in the yard and watch Mr 6 work out his energy on the trampoline. Fresh air, and the opportunity to actually watch with my full attention, were great for me. Having a captive audience and some exercise were great for him!
- When I was too sick to be up, I made sure that the boys spent a lot of time laying on my bed, playing games or reading. They cared for me, and I was able to care for them. I did try to balance this with Mr 9’s yearning for isolation!
2. Cut all the fingernails!
This is an obvious one, but I didn’t think of it at first. It is better to go through the trauma of having their nails cut (if this is something your child struggles with) than have the lesions get infected.
3. Find the softest clothes possible to wear, but be careful about overheating.
Getting hot makes the itch much worse. Having sensory kids often means that all of their clothes are soft anyway, but I was intentional when choosing exactly what they should wear each day. For 2 days, this meant lightweight long sleeve pjs! It also helped them to have as much skin covered as possible to resist the urge to scratch.
4. Maintain good hygiene standards.
I’ve never gotten any relief from oat baths or calamine lotion, perhaps because of my allergies and sensitive skin? However as I was sweating through the fever multiple times a day, I took showers whenever I felt I could stand up. I also got the boys to shower twice a day, as being clean definitely soothed the skin. We also washed our hands often. As Mr 6 has a particular aversion to the sensation of blowing his nose, we struggled in this area. I did find it handy to hang plastic bags all around the rooms for used tissues. Calling them “snot bags” helped motivate and engage the boys to use them for their dirty tissues instead of plonking them down wherever they used them :).
5. Use a visual schedule.
I came across this great idea on Pinterest, and made a simple version for my boys. Because they are older, we prefer written rather than picture reminders of what to expect. I know a lot of ASD families use visual schedules for daily living and schooling, but this was the first time I had seen them used to help cope with illness. Brilliant!
6. Antihistamines. Use them!
We have oral antihistamines as part of the treatment plans for Mr 9’s eczema flare-ups and Mr 6’s awful seasonal allergies, but they were quite effective at keeping the chicken pox itchiness to a minimum too.
7. Don’t overly nag about scratching.
While the boys were overwhelmed by the sensations of chicken pox, a reminder from me to “Stop Scratching!” was enough to elicit tears. So I saved my reminders for the important times, like not scratching the spots on their faces!
8. Use honey, lemon, and ginger to soothe sore throats.
As we all had sore throats for days, I brewed a pot of ginger tea each morning and left it on the stove to serve throughout the day. To each cup I added 1 Tbsp of lemon juice and 1 Tbsp of honey and served warm for the boys, and hot for me. I like to use this method for my ginger tea, and it is effective and palatable enough that Mr 9 requests it whenever he has a sore throat.
9. Serve “easy” foods.
Another area to relax the rules is around mealtimes. None of us were very hungry anyway, and all had lesions inside our mouths, making eating uncomfortable. I concentrated on simple and comfort foods to get us through. This was also important as I was not well enough to cook meals! Cheese on (gluten free) toast, fruit from the fruit bowl, and batches of spaghetti bolognese from the freezer helped us during those hours that Mr Dave was at work. This was not the time to force anyone to eat their veges!
10. Look after your own health!
If you as the adult also have chicken pox, it is important to strive for that elusive balance between caring for your kids and caring for yourself. Complications in adults suffering from chicken pox are much more common and serious than in healthy children. I had chicken pox for the first time around my 23rd birthday. It resulted in 4 weeks off work, during which I was very ill, in agony, and eventually developed pneumonia. And this was at a time before my autoimmune diseases had manifested!
Get family and friends to help in ways that do not risk spreading the germ: maintain social distance (2m), get them to run errands, drop off groceries, have video calls for a chat with the patients. I had my groceries delivered but let the delivery person know to leave everything on the front porch and that I would get things in after he left. Be as thoughtful as you can, while accepting as much help as possible!
And my final survival secret? Over-the-counter cold and flu tablets for the adult patients. These help control the cold symptoms of chicken pox, minimising the spread, and also allowing you to rest at night to get better more quickly!
Hopefully these 10 essential tips for coping with chicken pox in your sensory child will help you if you experience this unpleasant illness in your family.
Some Final Helpful Resources
- learn to recognize chicken pox quickly with this fact sheet
- We always see our doctor when we suspect chicken pox. It can manifest in mild to severe cases, and it can be easy to miss! Despite my lengthy experience with this illness, it often takes me a few days to recognize it. This is especially important to minimize the spread to vulnerable people in our community.
- You could write a social story for your youngster with chicken pox. There are many websites that allow you to create your own! I use the Social Stories Creator and Library app (by Touch Autism) on my iPhone.
- Lots of people use home remedies such as those found here to great effect.