How To Help Your Child With Autism Handle Stress Related to Covid-19

Each child diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is different and may experience stress differently.  Younger children may adopt behaviors that you thought they had given up, such as sucking their thumb or having trouble sleeping alone.  Older children might be more irritable or withdrawn, or may alternatively have a hard time separating.  For children diagnosed with ASD, repetitive behaviors or interests might become more prominent and they may become more insistent on following a non-functional routine.  These behaviors in turn can cause additional stress for their families. Consult your child’s Behavior Analyst or members of the behavior intervention team and read the tips below to help your child  manage stress related to Covid-19.

How to help your child with Autism cope with stressors related to covid-19 (coronavirus)

Give reassurance

1- Verbal reassurance should be simple. 

  • If true, let them know that they and their family are healthy.
  • Remind them that the adults in their life care about them and are there to keep them safe and healthy.
  • Let them know that scientists and doctors are working hard to understand how to keep people safe.
  • Offer regular physical reassurance. Some children with ASD prefer physical touch that corresponds to their sensory preferences (for example, extra strong hugs and joint compression or, alternately, light scratching).  Other children with ASD need to give permission or initial physical contact themselves.
  • Try not to use exaggeration, sarcasm, or metaphors.
  • When discussing timelines, try to be specific when you can. If this isn’t possible, talk about what you know will happen in the next few days without speculating on the future.  However, it is important to let your child know that this is temporary (“we know this will end”).
  • Consult additional helpful resources on how to explain a virus like covid-19

Autism Speaks Flu Teaching Story

Hable con sus hijos sobre el COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Un recurso para padres

The Ultimate Kids Guide to the Corona Virus19

2- Give Reassurance by Creating Predictability

Some children with ASD have a difficult time using social and environmental cues to help them understand what will happen next, and this causes heightened anxiety. How to help:

  • Build routines into your daily life. It’s more important that these are routines that you can maintain consistently than that they last throughout the day.  For example, start with a bedtime or morning routine. The elements of the routine don’t need to be new or therapeutic, they just need to follow a predictable pattern and be carried out consistently.  As you are able, you can increase the amount of routines you are following.  If your family and provider is healthy, continue ABA sessions, they can also play an important role in maintaining a predictable routine.
  • Provide verbal or visual cues to prepare your child for transitions. For example, “First a snack, then a bath”.  If your child struggles with verbal directions, pictures can be helpful.  It can be helpful to play the same song during predictable transitions, such as when it is time to clean up.  Read more about how to communicate Schedule Changes

Give your child with ASD things to do.

1. In response to the virus, we can empower all of our children to be part of the solution:

  • Wash their hands
  • Cough into their arm (the “superman” cough)
  • Keep distance from people that don’t live in your household.
  • Get good sleep
  • Follow teacher instructions

2. Direct them toward activities that will occupy their minds and bodies

3. Focus on implementing sensory activities on a daily basis

If your child exhibits high anxiety, here are some strategies to help in the moment.

1. Grounding techniques are designed to help a child to draw their focus away from their anxiety.

  • Count to ten or recite the alphabet as slowly they can.
  • Listen to calming music and try to pick out different instruments; or sing a favorite song more slowly or in a whisper.
  • Have them list ten things that they see in the room around them.
  • Stretching or simple yoga activities
  • Tactile experiences such as squeezing clay, or a stuffed animal

2. Wrap them in a bear hug, use a blanket to roll them up like a “burrito”, or joint compression.

3. Distract them with preferred activities.

4. Some high functioning, verbal children benefit from talking through their anxiety.

However, remember to provide brief, simple answers and reassure them that adults can help.  If their anxiety does not appear to be decreasing, move to another strategy.

Understand how important you and other family members are in helping reduce anxiety.

Your child with ASD is likely registering that your emotions are heightened.  However, they are likely to be delayed in their ability to understand how to attribute or manage the emotional energy they are picking up from those around them.  Your family is experiencing a major transition.  Take time for yourself and for your non-affected children to do some of the things you need to do to ease your own anxiety.  This will likely mean that you will need to marshall whatever personal resources you have to free up some time, and that you won’t be able to accomplish everything you want to as quickly as you might like.

Take it one day at a time, be present; be patient, be flexible.  There is hope.

Additional Resources

  1. Speak to your ABS Behavior Analyst about telehealth support. Utilize your behavior intervention team to help.
  2. Autism Speaks Response Line:  https://www.autismspeaks.org/covid-19-information-and-resources
  3. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network – Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Parents Cope with the Coronavirus Disease, 2019 (Covid-19).


Helping Children Cope with and Understand Covid-19