The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone. However, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have faced special challenges during this time. The sudden changes have made the past year extremely difficult for people with autism and the people who care for them.
Some of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted people with autism are already known and easy to evaluate. However, the lasting emotional and developmental effects remain to be seen.
In this guide, we are going to look at ways that COVID-19 has affected the treatment, education, and daily life of people with autism. We’ll also talk about how autism research and diagnostics have changed because of the pandemic. Finally, we’ll equip you with ways to help someone with autism cope during this challenging time. Let’s get started.
Life in Lockdown With Autism
Living in lockdown for several months likely triggered intense anxiety and other behavioral issues. For people with autism who live in a group home away from their family, not being able to visit with their family is also detrimental to their emotional health.
Many treatment programs and activities also moved online for people with autism, just like they did for the rest of the world. One-on-one autism therapy became Zoom therapy, schools went online, and services for people with autism decreased.
People with autism spectrum disorder need consistency and structure to thrive. These overnight transitions were tougher for them than most people understand. Psychologists say you should prepare someone with autism for major changes months in advance. The rapid way the pandemic changed daily life was difficult for people with autism and the people who care for them.
All of these changes escalated issues that people with autism can struggle with, such as:
- Obsessive Compulsion Disorder
- The tendency towards self-harm
- Phobias of germs and contamination
- Regression in behavior
- Regression in language skills
- Emotional outbursts
The lack of social interactions in lockdown also limited opportunities to learn social awareness and how to handle various social situations that people with autism need.
Autism Diagnoses Delayed During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic was not just hard on people already diagnosed with autism, but it also made it hard to get an autism diagnosis from a qualified specialist. Most autism specialists do not make online appointments for new patients. Evaluating someone for autism is something that is best done in person because it involves multiple screenings and observation sessions.
When you suspect that your child or a loved one has autism, all you want is to get them the help and care they need. Having that first diagnostics appointment delayed is stressful for families who are eager to start treatment therapy.
Fortunately, some physicians and psychologists found ways to diagnose patients, and others were able to resume in-person diagnosis appointments after a few weeks of lockdown.
Autism Research Altered During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic had a big impact on autism research. For example, many conferences were canceled, and clinical trials were postponed. Some events moved to virtual events while others were completely canceled.
Research deadlines were extended, and some studies were totally altered to reflect a post-pandemic world. For instance, studies around autism therapy and diagnosing autism were reworked to factor in a virtual world.
Only time will tell the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the research and academic world of autism.
Helping People With Autism Cope During the Pandemic
Now that we’ve looked at some of the ways the pandemic has impacted people with autism over the last year, let’s talk about ways to help them cope during this difficult time.
Unfortunately, even though some parts of the world are returning to normal, people with autism are still suffering from the overnight changes that the pandemic inflicted on their lives.
If you have a child or loved one with autism, the first thing you need to do is help them understand the current situation. This will be a frequent conversation since the circumstances of the pandemic change so rapidly.
Use simple language to explain the situation that doesn’t overwhelm them and trigger more anxiety. Repeat the information as much as possible until they understand and be up-front in telling them that you don’t have all the answers.
Emphasize the things that your loved one with autism can control to give them some peace of mind. Go over hand washing and wearing a mask as ways that can make them feel safe.
COVID-19 Coping Strategies for People With Autism
There are some coping strategies and techniques you can try with your child to ease their anxiety. Children with autism have a hard time expressing their feelings, which is why they tend to act out more, so implementing these mechanisms can also help them express themselves.
Here are a few ideas you can try:
- Ask your child to draw their feelings
- Suggest acting out a play or telling you a story about how they are feeling
- Listen to their favorite music to help them calm down
- Practice deep breathing exercises
- Count to ten when they are overwhelmed
- Let them play outside as much as possible
- Do sensory exercises
- Practice yoga together
Track your child’s behavior and how they respond to these coping strategies so you can focus on the ones that work. Communicate often with their teacher, therapist, and other care providers so you can all use consistent coping strategies.
Establishing Routine in a Pandemic
People with autism need predictability in their lives, which went out the window when the pandemic hit. To help your child cope, focus on the routines that are still the same from before the pandemic and emphasize the things you can control.
For instance, going to the park can still be a normal part of your routine. Family dinner every night can stay the same. With all the change happening around them, don’t throw in any additional change for them to deal with right now. Keep as many things consistent for them as you can.
You can also focus on establishing new routines during the pandemic. For example, maybe you do a five-minute stretch session together in between virtual school subjects.
You and your child can work on writing or drawing a daily schedule to help them feel grounded during the day. Make it colorful and interactive with stickers and pictures if that is developmentally appropriate for them.
If your child is still doing school at home, make sure they have a designated area for classes and studying. Minimize the distractions around them to make them more comfortable, and pin up their daily schedule and sticker charts in a place they can see it.
Reward Positive Behavior
During this challenging time, your child will need extra positive reinforcement. Keep an eye out for positive behavior and give them plenty of verbal affirmation and rewards.
ABA therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis) is a great way to provide positive reinforcement in a playful and fun way that highlights your child’s talents and strengths.
Safe Social Interactions
Just like anyone, kids with autism need social interactions to thrive. Try to schedule social events that work around you and your child’s comfort level during the pandemic.
For instance, a socially distanced park playdate could greatly increase your child’s happiness and help them feel less isolated. You can also take advantage of zoos, museums, and other places for children that have reopened.
Life After the Pandemic for People With Autism
Even though the world is slowly returning to normal, it may take a long time for autistic people to bounce back from everything the pandemic threw at them.
Going back to normal, even though it’s a positive thing, is still more change that they have to deal with after settling into pandemic routines. As things change again, maintain clear communication with your child to help them feel prepared. Continue using the coping strategies that work for them as well.
If you haven’t tried ABA Therapy for your child, it could help them during this transitional time. At ABA Centers of America, our team of experts is passionate about providing comprehensive and personalized care to help people with autism cope with the challenges of daily life.
Contact us today for a free consultation about ABA therapy at our treatment centers or our in-home services in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.