Autism during a Pandemic

As discussed in a previous blog post, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a variety of effects. Major changes to a person’s daily routine, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, may present unique challenges to individuals with autism and their families.

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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define ASD as a “developmental disability” that can affect the way a person socializes, communicates, and behaves.

This article discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect people with autism and their families. It also provides some actionable tips for managing the effects of autism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

HOW THE PANDEMIC MAY EFFECT PEOPLE WITH AUTISM

Communities around the world are continuing to observe physical distancing measures in order to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus responsible for COVID-19. As a result, many schools and businesses remain closed.

Now, many adults and children are simultaneously working and learning from home. Adjusting to a new routine such as this can present unique challenges for individuals with autism and their families. 

Many children with autism receive specialized care from health and behavioral specialists in their community. Children receiving Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention rely on in-person, small-group interactions.

Schools and teachers provide yet another essential support network for children with autism. However, school closures mean that children have severely restricted access to vital educational services.

Children with autism may not understand why their daily routine is changing, which may lead to stress, frustration, and/or anxiety. These emotional triggers can exacerbate the effects of autism and may lead to more severe behavioral and communication problems.

Parents and caregivers may find themselves struggling to balance their professional and household responsibilities while supporting their children during these uncertain times.

The following sections provide some tips on how to manage autism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

TALK ABOUT COVID-19

Although some autistic children may not fully understand the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and caregivers can focus on explaining their family’s current situation and how it affects the child’s regular activities.

If a child asks about the pandemic, try to use clear, direct explanations and avoid unnecessary details that could confuse or scare them.

A simple explanation of the COVID-19 pandemic might look something like this: “The coronavirus is a new type of germ that can make people can sick. We need to keep ourselves and others healthy by staying at home.”

Parents and caregivers can expand this explanation to include how other activities, such as family vacations and weekend outings, will be on hold for a little while. Let them know that they will continue doing their school work from home.

GO OVER IMPORTANT PRECAUTIONS

Also, explain that they can keep themselves and others from getting sick if they follow these precautions:

  • avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth
  • practicing physical distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from other people in public areas
  • wearing a mask or cloth over their nose and mouth in public spaces
  • frequently washing their hands with soap and warm water or hand sanitizer

CREATE A DAILY ROUTINE

According to the Child Mind Institute, structured routines can help minimize negative emotions and behavioral problems in autistic individuals.

People can minimize significant changes to their family’s routine by:

  • waking up and going to bed at the same time
  • doing school and work activities during weekdays
  • blocking out time for breaks, snacks, and screen time
  • cooking and eating meals at consistent times
  • scheduling social activities, such as video chats and phone calls with friends and other family members, on the weekend

According to the Autism Society, parents and caregivers should reward flexibility. Allowing extra time to accommodate small changes may help prevent a person from feeling overwhelmed.

It is also important that people set aside some time for physical activities. In a 2019 review article, researchers evaluated findings from eight studies that focused on the effects of exercise on ASD in children under the age of 16.

The researchers found that autistic children who exercised three times per week showed significant reductions in repetitive and aggressive behaviors. The researchers explain that these behavioral improvements may last for at least 2 hours after exercising.

(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6843401/)

CREATE A CALM ENVIRONMENT

Creating a calm environment can help prevent outbursts, repetitive behaviors, and stress.

To do this, people can try the following strategies:

  • Try limiting unnecessary background noises. This means turning off the television and other electronics during school time.
  • Keep the house tidy. Parents and caregivers can even make tidying a family activity. Block out some time in the evening for cleaning up communal spaces, putting away toys, and washing the dishes.
  • Avoid unnecessary stress. Consider taking a break from reading, watching, or listening to the news.
  • Try incorporating relaxing activities into the family’s routine. These include deep breathing, yoga, reading, and listening to calming music.

Here are a few tips to help you introduce a face mask to your child with autism and to help him or her become comfortable wearing one.

  1. Think about your child’s sensory issues when purchasing a mask. For example, if your child is already annoyed by seams in socks or tags in t-shirts then make sure their mask doesn’t have those.
  2. Try using an adjustable mask. Adjustable straps are great for getting masks in the exact right spot. Try to get ones with a soft slider rather than a hard-plastic slider.
  3. Do not start mask wearing the moment you need your child to wear a mask. It’s better to introduce the mask at a time when your kid can wear it around the house and get used to it rather than when you’re rushing out the door for a doctor’s appointment.
  4. Start mask wearing while your kid is doing a fun, calming activity. Being able to focus on something they enjoy will help your child forget about the mask. It’s okay for this activity to be screen time, as long as it allows them to practice having the mask on.
  5. Start small – the first time only has to be 5 minutes. After wearing a mask successfully for a short period of time, you can gradually work your way up to more time.
  6. Start with a mask that is soft, comfortable, adjustable and easy to put on. If this means forgoing the antimicrobial masks with filters, that’s fine – research shows that some masking is better than none. Once your child gets comfortable wearing the soft mask you can try a heavy-duty one with filters and thicker material.
  7. Try masks with fun characters and themes. Having a favorite cartoon character on their mask can help get your child on board with mask wearing.

As with all new things, it will take your child some time to adjust to wearing a mask.  But with practice and patience, most children can get used to wearing a mask.

COPING WITH AUTISM

Several interventions can reduce the severity of autism’s effects. The exact type of intervention depends on the type and severity of these effects.

For example, doctors may prescribe medications that address aggressive, repetitive, or hyperactive behaviors. Autistic individuals who also experience symptoms of mental health conditions may benefit from anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants.

Behavioral and education interventions focus on building life skills and promoting independence. These types of intervention teach people essential language and communication skills.

Behavioral therapy involves strategies for managing repetitive, aggressive, and other behaviors.

WHEN TO SEEK HELP

A person may wish to contact a healthcare provider if they or someone they know develops new or worsening ASD-related behaviors.

Parents and caregivers of autistic individuals should stay in contact with their primary care physician. The physician can perform health and wellness evaluations via video chat services. They can also provide effective treatment recommendations and behavioral intervention strategies.

People should also contact a healthcare provider if they or someone they live with develops symptoms of COVID-19. According to the CDC, the most common symptoms are a cough and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

People with at least two of the following symptoms may also have COVID-19:

  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • a fever
  • chills
  • repeated shaking with chills
  • muscle pain
  • a new loss of taste or smell

According to the CDC, children usually develop milder symptoms than adults. Children with COVID-19 may experience:

  • a fever
  • a runny nose
  • a cough
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

TAKEAWAYS

Individuals and families continue to face disruptions in their daily routines as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. People with autism and their families may be facing many new challenges at this time. People can manage the effects of autism during the COVID-19 pandemic by building a new daily routine, creating a calm environment, and staying in contact with their healthcare providers. 

Autism during a Pandemic