Children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak has triggered a number of specific stressors for children with autism due to changes in daily routines and social interactions.

How to support a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder during the pandemic

Below are tips to help support your child or adolescent with ASD during these trying times:

1. Sleep

For many, the pandemic disrupted sleep schedules. Changes in schooling and stress levels made it difficult for youth to achieve restful sleep. Lockdown restrictions left children and adolescents spending more time on screens. Children and adolescents with ASD are particularly sensitive to changes in their sleep schedules.

Strong sleep hygiene can brighten your child’s mood, promote improved concentration, and enhance academic performance. You can help your child or adolescent sleep better by:

  • maintaining consistent bedtime routines, sleep times, and wake times every day of the week
  • shutting down screens one hour before bed
  • limiting distractions in the bedroom

2. Routine and structure

When the pandemic struck, routines and structure fell to the wayside. Research shows that children and adolescents with ASD benefit from predictable routines and structure. To help your child or adolescent during these times:

  • Keep a regular, daily schedule with set times or patterns in daily hygiene behaviors, eating, and physical activity.
  • Maintain consistent expectations for behaviors and school, as well as rewarding activities.
  • Ensure sound hygiene, proper nutrition, and daily exercise to help maintain overall health while also contributing to quality sleep.

3. Visuals, visuals, visuals

In a time of uncertainty, knowing what is expected can give children a much-needed sense of control. For individuals with ASD, visual cues and schedules can help break down concepts and improve understanding.

To help your child, make the daily routine into a visual schedule. This can decrease anxiety about expectations and prepare your child for schedule changes. It helps to personalize visual supports to your child’s needs and interests. For instance, incorporate your child’s favorite character or movie to foster buy-in.

4. Get moving

Due to the pandemic, many of the activities your child was involved in were cancelled or postponed. With fewer scheduled activities, children and adolescents are spending increased time on screens while sitting or lying down. Physical activity and mental engagement are essential building blocks for healthy physical and emotional development.

Use your child’s particular interests to get him/her moving. Help your child get outside. Try playing different games. Make a point to schedule these activities daily. Such time allows you to reconnect with your child and spend time together as a family.

5. Talk openly

Youth with ASD displayed increased behavioral and emotional concerns throughout the pandemic. You can help your child by openly discussing stressors. Parents should also:

  • Model the labeling of your thoughts and feelings when stressed, in a developmentally appropriate way. This can help your child do the same.
  • Encourage your child to share daily experiences, including both high and low points.
  • Practice coping skills and help your child identify his/her preferred strategies. Such skills might include:
    • deep breathing
    • progressive muscle relaxation
    • guided imagery
    • positive thinking
    • mindfulness
    • taking space

These tips are well supported by research and among the most frequently recommended by experts. Many of these supports help not only your child but the family as a whole by decreasing stress and conflict.

We encourage you to try them out. Start one at a time and give them a full trial. These ideas may not be popular at first, but most children and adolescents are able to recognize the difference in how they feel.

Most of all, it is important to remember that you do not have to be perfect. If you are reading this and thinking about trying one or more of these strategies, it means you care and are considerate of your child’s well-being -- and that is so important.

For more tips on children’s health and safety, visit the Growing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Autism care and treatment near you

At Bradley Hospital in East Providence, our specialists in autism can offer help and provide resources for you and your child with autism in our Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Gina M. Marini, LCSW

Gina M. Marini, MA, LICSW

Gina M. Marini, MA, LICSW, is a licensed independent clinical social worker at Bradley Hospital’s Verrecchia Clinic for Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities.