A child with autism establishing a routine during COVID-19.

COVID-19 has taken the world by storm, impacting communities across every continent. Although rates of stress and anxiety have skyrocketed among the general population, children with autism spectrum disorder are particularly at risk due to all of the associated changes.

Children and youth who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are vulnerable to the effects of prolonged self-isolation and during this time, may find it particularly challenging to adapt to the new norm during the current pandemic.

If you are currently at home full-time with your child, there are steps you can take to maintain a calmer, more structured home environment. As advised by Yale Child Study Center experts, when it comes to working from home with kids, “stick to a routine” — this can not be stressed enough for children with autism.

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The Link Between COVID-19, Autism, and Anxiety

COVID-19 has created a wide range of challenges for families across the United States and the rest of the globe, especially in terms of social distancing efforts. There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, which can be stressful. However, for children and youth with autism, the challenges associated with COVID-19 are magnified for those living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Many of the features of autism, including repetitive behavior, impaired communication, and social skills, as well as the need for sameness, social distancing, and the need to adapt to new routines can be rather distressing. Studies have shown that children with autism do not cope well when their daily routines are altered, even in the slightest.

Although routine can actually be highly beneficial in helping children with autism deal with the anxiety and uncertainty that tends to confront them in day-to-day life, when rapid changes are inevitable, such as during the current pandemic, a resistance to change can quickly become problematic.

How to Better Support Your Child with Autism During COVID-19

If you have recently transitioned into a full-time home environment due to school and work closures, be mindful of the following suggestions in order to better manage stress, fear, and anxiety. As discussed, you’ll want to focus on maintaining some level of normalcy, especially in terms of your child’s routine — here’s how.

1. Deal with disruptions to your child with autism routine

There are many variables that can remain the same when you’re home all day. For example, you can stick to the same routine that your child followed prior to COVID-19 in terms of getting up, eating breakfast, teeth brushing, and going to bed at their previously scheduled time.

The more consistency and structure, the calmer your child will likely feel. To help increase predictability, create a visual schedule that mimics their school day as best you can. Each week, try something new in terms of an activity your child enjoys, focusing on minimal, gradual change. This will help them adapt to the unfamiliar amidst the familiar.

This is a great time to really focus on your child’s home environment, building a sensory bedroom that will make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Learn More About Sensory Bedrooms

2. Be mindful of your own anxiety due to the changes in your routine

A 2019 study found that children with autism are “in tune” with their mom’s emotions, which is why you need to be mindful of your own mental health. If your child witnesses you in a state of anxiety, this may be rather unsettling for them. This is why a major component of treatment for children with anxiety is teaching parents better stress management techniques.

Unplug from the media, especially when your child is around, and instead, use this time to do something positive together each day. Provide a number of choices, including preparing a meal together, gardening together, or play a board game. You may even discover something that your child really enjoys, which can then be incorporated into your regular routine.

3. Break the day down into smaller steps and celebrate each accomplishment

At first, there will be a number of differences compared to your child’s day pre-coronavirus. However, the more structured and fun you make their day, the easier it will be to transition to the next activity. Once again, your child can refer to his/her visual routine to better understand what’s next. If they successfully try something new, celebrate.

Rewards and incentives can improve behaviors and during this time, it’s important to reduce feelings of anxiety as much as possible. Rewards will vary depending on your child’s preferences, but some examples include toys, healthy snacks, or increased screen time (which should be limited during this time).

4. Continue therapy services through telehealth and encourage life skills

Once again, transitioning from in-person therapy to telehealth services will be a change — but at least your child will still have access to the support they need. Contact your child’s school or therapist to discuss your options. In addition to their therapy sessions, incorporate new activities in your child’s routine that encourage their development of life skills, including:

  • Designated time each day to practice communication skills, incorporating lessons from speech therapy.
  • Meal preparation, teaching them a new meal each week. Start with preparing cereal or a yogurt bowl, working your way up to cooking an egg together.
  • Since they are not in a rush to get to school, focus on your morning routine in terms of dressing. Practice the selection and action of getting dressed.

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