Helping Children with Autism Cope During a Pandemic

As we all cope with uncertainty due to the spread of COVID-19, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have an even harder time with these stressors.

Children with autism may struggle with understanding information they see and hear about COVID-19. They may also have a hard time communicating their concerns or asking questions, especially if they’re stressed or confused. Because it can be difficult for them to understand and convey their emotions, they may become easily frustrated. Additionally, as many parents of children with autism know, changes to schedule and routines often trigger anxiety and disruptive behaviors.

During times of stress and uncertainty, children need extra support from their caregivers. Parents of children with ASD may find the following strategies and teaching tools helpful as they navigate this challenging time.

  • Use clear language and visuals to communicate. This strategy can help children understand COVID-19, new expectations, and changes to their routines. Try using social narratives with simple visual aids to clarify the situation and offer guidance and new “rules.” These stories can explain the virus, illustrate social distancing and hand washing, and set new expectations, such as the need to use videoconferencing for school and therapies.
  • Create structure and new routines. Loosely structure the schedule for “school days” around your child’s normal routine. Maintain consistent sleep and wake regimes. Use a visual schedule with pictures for each activity.
  • Seek out support and help. Email or call your child’s teachers and therapy providers to get help with setting up a daily schedule and implementing techniques for behavioral challenges.
  • Monitor your child’s mental health. If you notice signs of anxiety or depression such as changes in sleeping or eating patterns, increases in repetitive behaviors, excessive worry, increased irritability, or decreases in self-care, seek out additional support from a mental health provider or your pediatrician.
  • Prioritize your own self-care. Try to be patient and realistic with your child and yourself as you adapt to your new routine. Juggling the demands of this new “normal” can impact your mental and physical health. Schedule time each day for something that recharges you: meditation or prayer, calling a friend, a favorite hobby, or another activity that helps you feel better.

Nicole Kreiser Wells, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Virginia. She specializes in providing care to children with co-occurring neurodevelopmental disorders and mental health challenges. 

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