Tools From UNC & ARI to Support Individuals with Autism During COVID-19

April 08, 2020

63% of Families Reporting Severe Disruptions to Services

With more than 90% of all Americans currently under stay at home orders due to COVID-19, families are rapidly adapting to a highly unusual way of living. Almost everyone’s schedule has been disrupted. Students are now attending classes over the internet. Parents are working from home. Gym classes and social engagements take place over Zoom. Even medical appointments are occurring remotely through telehealth and telemedicine technology.

These changes came swiftly into American homes. For families dealing with autism, this new way of living can be filled with uncertainty and stress. A new national survey of 8000 autism families conducted in late March by SPARK, showed that 98% of children with autism are home due to school closure. Furthermore, 63% of families report severe disruptions in services and therapies, with speech therapy being affected the most. Given these daunting statistics, how are parents and caregivers supposed to support their children with special needs? SafeMinds found two great resources to make the combination of managing COVID-19 stay at home orders and autism easier.

The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute Autism Team at the University of North Carolina (UNC) released a comprehensive report focusing on 7 strategies to support individuals with autism through challenging times like COVID-19. These important strategies are:

  1. Support understanding
  2. Offer opportunities for expression
  3. Prioritize coping and calming skills
  4. Maintain routines
  5. Build new routines
  6. Foster connections (from a distance)
  7. Be aware of changing behaviors

Examples and ready-made resources are included in this 60 page report to help caregivers implement these strategies quickly and easily. These materials purposely represent a variety of styles to model the range of what may be most meaningful across ages and skills, and to demonstrate what can be generated with few materials by busy caregivers. Specific adaptations and additions may be necessary to best meet the varied needs of individual children and young adults.

These strategies are presented as a menu or toolkit of ideas. Caregivers may take one idea at a time and find a way to make it work for their child(ren) with autism and their family. Strategies include: visual schedules, social stories, calendars, visual timers, reward systems, calming routines, exercise activities, and chore charts. Also listed are educational resources, helpful apps for topics like mindfulness and socializing, as well as crisis supports. Overall, this 60-page report provides a one-stop shop for caregivers to run their own special needs homeschool program. Taking advantage of UNC’s ready-made resources should ease a great deal of stress for everyone at home.

For those who like video presentations, the Autism Research Institute (ARI) has a series of webinars for coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Two of these webinars are currently available online. Three more webinars will be released later this month. Anxiety, Autism: Five Prime Suspects—with tips for coping at home during the Corona Virus Outbreak can be viewed now. It is presented by Christopher Lynch, Ph.D., a child psychologist who specializes in stress and anxiety management for children and teens with autism. In his webinar, Dr. Lynch explains the major underlying causes of anxiety, for individuals with autism, and gives suggestions on how to tackle these causes. He also examines evidence-based strategies which can ease anxiety throughout COVID-19 disruptions.

Coronavirus Impact—Home All Day—Basic Supports and Strategies to Get us Through and Keep us Sane is the other webinar currently available through ARI. This webinar is delivered by Angela Mouzakitis, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA, whose work includes developing behavior support plans for children with autism. In her presentation, Dr. Mouzakitis discusses some of the significant causes and effects of emotional distress during schedule disruptions and how to tackle them with concrete coping mechanisms.

The following information is for the upcoming ARI COVID-19 webinars.

Registration is needed to attend.

April 9, 2020, 11:00 am Eastern

Emotional Support for Families during COVID-19
Presented by: Lisa Latten, MsED, Caitlin LeGros, MSN, Suzannah Joy Iadarola, Ph.D., Lisa Luxemberg, MSW

April 22, 2020 1:00 PM Eastern

Support for Individuals with ASD: Coping with Family and Virtual Interactions During COVID-19
Presented by: Aarti Nair, Ph.D.

April 30, 2020, 1:00 PM Eastern

Talking to kids about changing schedules, altered plans, and disruption during COVID-19
Presented by: Amanda Tami, LPC, BCBA


Nicole Chavez. Nearly all Americans are under stay at home orders but Fauci says the US needs more coronavirus restrictions. CNN. April 2, 2020

Spark: Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge. Impact of COVID-19 on Families and Children with Autism. April 2020

University of North Carolina Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute Autism Team: Supporting Individuals with Autism through Uncertain Times. March 2020.

Autism Research Institute. Coping with COVID-19 Pandemic.

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