The past few weeks have been stressful and full of changes— from loss of social connections, interrupted routines, to fears and rumors spreading faster than COVID-19 itself. People with autism may need more support to understand news, process their feelings, and adapt to changes.
Some autistic individuals face challenges with comprehension, communication and understanding abstract language, an insistence on sameness, and a greater likelihood of depression and anxiety. These stressful times can increase the likelihood of these challenges.
People with autism have unique strengths and differing abilities. It is best to use each person’s strengths and abilities to help them cope with these changes. When possible, the person with autism should have a say in which strategies to use and what would be most helpful.
Here are seven different areas to think about when supporting people with autism through this difficult time.
Support understanding. Many sources of information use abstract language when describing the situation, which can lead to confusion or misunderstanding. Use concrete terms to describe the virus and the current situation. A social story or social narrative may also be a good tool. Other ways to improve understanding may include visual supports and cues.
Offer opportunities for expression of feelings. Behavior can be communication. Some children and young adults may find verbally expressing feelings very difficult. They might express themselves through tantrums, refusing to take part in activities, withdrawing, and other challenging behaviors. Consider having individual and family discussions, writing activities, drawing, movie making, and play as alternative ways of expressing emotions. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), music, dance, and visual art forms may be helpful in expressing feelings, as well.
Prioritize coping and calming strategies. Learning and using coping, self-management, and self-care skills should be a priority during this time. Many people with autism have calming strategies that work for them. If coping/calming strategies are not yet part of the routine, this is a great opportunity to teach these important skills. Exercise and physical activity may also help reduce anxiety.
Maintain routines. Some autistic individuals may cope best when daily routines are least interrupted or changed, and routines can provide comfort. Maintain sleep/wake routines, facilitate participation in household chores and living skills, and regularly use visual schedules to set appropriate expectations about what will happen during the day.
Build new routines. This may be necessary for caregivers with many demands on their time, like working from home, caring for other children, or homeschooling. Some techniques for building new routines include transitioning off screens by using a visual timer, offering choices (such as the order of the day’s activities or choosing meal options), or creating a work-space to-do list to help guide schoolwork completion while at home.
Foster social connections from a distance. Everyone needs positive social support during this time, and people with autism may be more susceptible to social isolation and loneliness. You may need to facilitate social connection by text or direct messaging, or providing opportunities for video calls with friends, family, neighbors, teachers, and others. There are many online platforms that can provide activities to help connect with friends, such as attending religious services, playing chess, social gaming, online schoolwork, or virtual volunteer work.
Be aware of changing behaviors. Because verbal expression can be difficult, some people with autism may express fear, anxiety, and depression through different behaviors. Changes in eating or sleeping patterns, excessive worry/rumination, increased agitation or irritability, or decreases in self-care may be signs of anxiety or depression. You may need to contact a mental health or medical provider or try different types of support or giving more support.
For more information, and specific examples and ready-to-use materials, please visit Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules.