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Coronavirus (COVID-19): Helping Kids With Autism Cope

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Helping Kids With Autism Cope

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The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is keeping parents and kids home — and away from others — to help stop the spread of the virus. It has changed many of our everyday routines. Adjusting to a new routine is stressful for everyone, but especially for children with autism who have trouble with change.

Find ways to help your child understand what's going on and what to expect from day-to-day. This will help your child adjust and even thrive during this time.

What Should I Tell My Child About Coronavirus?

Kids with autism may not know what is going on, or might not be able to express their fears and frustrations.

So it's important to talk to your child about coronavirus in a way that's simple to understand. Be clear, direct, and honest. For example, "Coronavirus is a germ. It can make people very sick. But we can do things to stay healthy."

Then, explain that many children are attending school from home, some parents may work from home, and some activities and family trips will be put on hold.

Go over important rules, and help your child to:

  • Wash hands well and often (for at least 20 seconds).
  • Try not to touch their nose, mouth, and eyes.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from people who don't live with you.
  • Wear a mask or cloth face covering in public places.

Give your child space and time for questions, but don't offer more detail than your child asks for. For example, if your child asks about people who are sick, answer the question. But don't bring up the topic if it doesn't come up.

How Can I Help My Child Understand?

Kids with autism may need extra support to understand what's going on around them, and what's expected of them in some situations.

Social stories are stories that teach kids what happens in some situations, and explain what kids should do in those situations. Many social stories have pictures to go along with them. Use social stories, pictures, or other visuals to help your child know the steps for:

  • washing hands, wearing a mask, and other ways to stay healthy and safe
  • staying at least 6 feet away from others who don't live with you
  • distance learning
  • new routines at home

You know how your child learns best, so use learning methods that have worked in the past.

How Can I Help My Child Adjust?

Routines are comforting for kids with autism, so do your best to keep as many of them as you can. Stick to regular bed and wake-up times, meal and snack times, screen time, chores, and other household routines. But build in new routines to include school work, breaks, and exercise.

When possible, help your child take control by giving a couple of choices. For example, you could let your child choose what to eat for lunch. When doing school work, you can ask what your child would like to do next.

Visual schedules and to-do lists can help kids know what to expect, while timers and 2-minute warnings can help with transitions.

Having a set routine and clear expectations will help lower the anxiety that can happen when things change.

How Can I Help My Child Stay Calm?

Kids with autism who feel frustrated, worried, or scared may have more repetitive behaviors (like hand flapping or rocking), tantrums, and other challenging behaviors.

Find ways for your child to express feelings. To help kids work through strong emotions, try:

  • talking together
  • doing crafts
  • writing
  • playing or acting out fears
  • for kids who are nonverbal, using augmented (or alternative) communication devices

Also try calming activities, such as deep breathing, music, or watching a favorite video throughout the day. Exercise also can help ease anxious feelings.

Limit the time kids spend on social media or watching scary or upsetting news reports. When kids do hear or read something upsetting, talk about it to help ease fears.

While caring for your child, be sure that you take breaks and recharge too.

What Else Should I Know?

Your child's health care provider, teacher, or behavior or learning specialist can offer more tips to help your child during this time.

Talk to your provider if you notice changes in sleeping or eating habits, or if your child seems more worried or upset than usual. These may be signs of anxiety or depression.

For non-urgent health care or behavioral health visits, a provider might be able to see you through a telehealth visit so you won't have to leave home.

For more on how to help your child, visit the Autism Speaks website and AFIRM's COVID-19 online toolkit.

Reviewed by: Diane E. Treadwell-Deering, MD
Date reviewed: 2020-07-23