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Tips for Talking With Your Child With Autism About the Coronavirus

How to minimize stress and anxiety

Writer: Margaret Dyson, PhD

Clinical Expert: Margaret Dyson, PhD

en Español

During these uncertain times of social distancing and widespread change in our daily lives, anxiety and stress are high for most people. However, youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are particularly prone to distress in response to changes or disruptions in their typical routines. It is important to provide your child with appropriate information about the coronavirus as well as steps (such as social distancing and handwashing) they can take to protect themselves and others. Below are some tips on how to discuss the current situation with your child with autism.

  • Hear your child out. By now, your child is already well aware that life isn’t what it used to be, but their thoughts and feelings about these changes might surprise you. Set aside time for them to describe what they know and how they feel about the current situation. In addition to verbal responses, make sure to offer your child the opportunity to answer using visual tools (such as pictures or emojis). This will give you a sense of what they understand and feel about the current situation as well as an opportunity to provide them with appropriate information and correct any misinformation. Also, limit your child’s exposure to the news (such as the current number of positive casesor tensions over reopening), as the news can heighten their level of stress and anxiety.
  • Use simple, concrete language. In addition to considering your child’s communication (for example, verbal vs. nonverbal) and cognitive levels, use clear, direct language when explaining what the coronavirus is, the purpose of social distancing, changes in the routine, expectations for the future, etc. As a general rule, avoid using any sarcasm, analogies or metaphors, as these can be particularly confusing to a child with autism.
  • Use visual supports and stories. It is important to convey information to your child using their preferred method of communication and way of processing information. Visual supports and stories are two helpful ways to explain the current situation and provide a “script” or steps your child can take to adapt to these recent changes. Some of the things that could be aided by a visual support or story include explaining what the coronavirus is, how to properly wash hands, why school is closed, rules for social distancing, and remote learning schedules. Below are some examples of stories and visual supports available online that could potentially be adapted for your child:
  • Monitor your own anxiety. Your anxiety regarding the changes in routine, closing of schools, working remotely and disruptions in your child’s services is reasonable and understandable. However, if you appear highly anxious when talking to your child, they will likely sense your anxiety and it will be hard to calmly and effectively explain the current situation to them. Before having a discussion with your child, use some of your own coping strategies to manage your anxiety, such as taking some deep breaths or going out for a brief walk. And remember, no one can be a perfect parent right now — and that’s okay! You’re doing your best in a difficult situation, and your support is valuable to your child even if the conversations don’t go smoothly.

Did you know the Child Mind Institute is offering telehealth services? Learn more about Telehealth.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.