Dealing with the Coronavirus Emergency For Autism Families

March 19, 2020

Let’s face it, we are living in unprecedented times. The threat of coronavirus (COVID-19) has disrupted normal life in ways most people would never think possible. Fully functional individuals are full of worry about easing the risk of illness for their families. Add a family member with a disability into the mix, and anxiety is likely to reach sky high. Especially since the CDC recognizes that those with neurological and neurodevelopment conditions [including disorders of the brain, epilepsy (seizure disorders), intellectual disability, and moderate to severe developmental delay] may have an increased risk of serious illness due to COVID-19.

The media has done an excellent job promoting the CDC’s steps to protecting one’s self and others from COVID-19. However, teaching social distancing, proper hand washing techniques, and avoiding touching your face will be quite challenging for many of those on the spectrum. Someone with ASD may have sensory issues or lack understanding of personal space. Following multi-step directions may be difficult or not remembered without prompting. Getting used to staying at home or sheltering in place will disturb daily routines. Persistence, patience and perseverance will be the orders of the day to get through this trying time.

Dr. Liz Matheis, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist, offers some great tips for helping children on the spectrum cope with the disruption to their schedule while at home. Her first tip is to keep the same routine—almost mimicking what your child does at school. Dr. Matheis’ second tip is to stay as positive as possible while managing your child’s activities during this time. Try doing fun activities during downtime like baking, playing board games and preparing meals together. Her third tip is to keep anxiety out of the equation. Children often sense when their caregiver is stressed. Consider limiting your time in front of the news and try not to discuss the latest Corona Virus statistics in front of your children.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have relaxed eligibility requirements for many health sevices delivered through telehealth formats rather than in-person visits. These services include behavior, speech and occupational therapies used by many children with autism. With telehealth, the therapist can provide sessions by real-time 2-way video like Skype and FaceTime. A caregiver might need to be present to help facilitate direct therapy to the child if needed, or the therapist can provide coaching directly to the parent/caregiver. Approval of telehealth for therapies is currently mixed among private health insurance companies. More companies are allowing this each day. So far TriCare has not given permission.

For families who have a member in residential care or an adult day program, this is the time to check up on their facility’s practices for mitigating COVID-19 risk. The website, Disability Scoop, outlines practices that should be followed in this circumstance. These include staggering meals and activity schedules so social distancing can be implemented, limiting visitors, and daily body temperature screening for residents and staff. Also, ask about their quarantine or possible closure policies if a case of COVID-19 is identified.

Finally, for more support, the National Autism Association and Autism Speaks both have robust lists of COVID-19 resources for families. The Autism Community in Action (TACA) which usually holds in person support group meetings has moved to webinars, chapter meetings and trainings online for the foreseeable future.

The uncertainty of this situation is making a trying time for everyone. SafeMinds wishes the best outcomes for all touched by autism.


Autism Speaks. COVID-19 Information and Resources. March 16, 2020.

Blythe Bernhard. Coronavirus Brings Added Worries for People With Disabilities. Disability Scoop. March 17, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Implementation of Mitigation Strategies for Communities with Local COVID-19 Transmission. Page 10.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to Protect Yourself.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Toolkit.

Dr. Liz Matheis. The Mighty. What to Do When Your Child on the Autism Spectrum’s Routine is Disrupted by the Coronavirus. March 10, 2020.

National Autism Association. COVID-19 Resources for Families.

The Autism Community in Action. A Note to Our TACA Community About Coronavirus (COVID-19).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Notification of Enforcement Discretion for telehealth remote communications during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.

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