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How to help an autistic child during the coronavirus outbreak

How to help an autistic child during the coronavirus outbreak

Sudden change is often bewildering, but for young people on the autistic spectrum it is especially difficult and sometimes distressing.

Coronavirus has closed schools and community groups as society tries to slow the pandemic. Families everywhere have had to alter their routines, but for people with autism and those who look after them, the abrupt change has created unique issues.

Managing change

Those with autism spectrum conditions are often very sensitive to changes, which might involve sensory overload. Wherever possible, it’s best to involve the young person in planning any new schedule and routine. If a child needs to be at home, leaving the day unstructured is likely to be far more stressful than creating a new timetable.

Having a child with autism at home all the time can also create particular difficulties for parents. Where adults are working at home it’s helpful to discuss the behavioural strategies you will use with your child. Everyone needs to agree, so that the boundaries can be applied consistently.

It may be helpful to make a list with your child of the food that’s available to you and plan meals a few days or a week in advance, so that if the food is slightly different from normal, the young person has had advance notice.

Noise concerns

You will also want to think about noise levels in the house if more of you are at home than normal. How can you minimise their experience of noise: could they use ear defenders at home? Could others listen to their music through headphones? Does the young person with autism have a quiet space they can go to if needed, where there will be items that will calm them?

If so, does everyone else in the house appreciate that if the young person goes to that space, they should not be disturbed?

I would talk to the child about the early-warning signs that they might be becoming overstimulated. Have an agreement that if they feel these signs, or you spot them, there is a code word or a sign to use, and that’s when they can always go to their quiet space to be calm.

The importance of sleep

It’s also helpful to try to maintain bedtime routines and good sleep-hygiene techniques. Sleep is vitally important to your mental state, and to help with this, I would recommend:

  • No caffeine after midday
  • Engaging in some form of exercise if possible in the day
  • Only using the bed for sleep at night (not sitting on it on iPads during the day, for example)
  • No screens an hour before bed
  • Establishing and maintaining a bedtime routine, so the body learns the next thing in the routine is sleep
  • Going to bed at the same time every day and getting up at the same time, whether it’s a weekday or weekend

Talking it over

I’d recommend giving children facts regarding the coronavirus. Tell them that we are all in this together. But try not to have the news on the television or radio too much and discourage children from searching for further information on the internet, as misinformation is likely to raise anxiety.

If they’re disappointed about activities being cancelled, consider making a poster together about the things you’re going to rebook when possible, so they know they won’t be forgotten.

I would also encourage contact with their friends via the internet or phone, so that social anxieties don’t grow and stand in their way when they reintegrate with their friends and fellow pupils when social distancing ceases

There’s more useful information from the National Autistic Society.


Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre and works with autistic children and their families.

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming.