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Talking to Individuals with Autism About COVID-19

“If you are caring for a child or loved one with autism, it is important to speak with him or her about COVID-19 to ensure they have the information and resources they need – without causing unnecessary worry and anxiety.”
– 
Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Senior Vice President and Chief Clinical/Medical Officer Yolanda Graham, MD

For families and caregivers of children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) public health crisis brings new challenges, such as confusion and disruptions to daily routines and schedules. Dr. Graham stresses the importance of communication, and allowing time for individuals to process these changes.

Yolanda Graham, MD

Yolanda Graham, MD

She offers the following tips when talking to individuals with ASD about COVID-19:

  • Provide just enough information: Have honest and developmentally-age appropriate conversations. Try to strike a balance between answering questions without providing too much information that might create alarm. Note: If you have questions of your own about COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization offer tools and resources to safeguard the health of you and your family.
  • Remain calm: Individuals with ASD may not fully understand the complexities surrounding COVID-19, but they can sense when their parents or caregivers are overwhelmed or anxious. Devereux National Director of Family Engagement Amy Kelly, MBA, MNM,suggests talking to your child or loved one in a calm manner: “As parents and caregivers, it is important to remain calm – or at least act calm, even though we may be dealing with our own anxieties. Remember, children will react to both what you say and how you say it.”
  • Limit news and social media exposure: Although the news can be helpful by keeping families and communities informed, individuals with autism (particularly children) may misinterpret what they hear, and could be frightened about something they do not understand. Try to limit their exposure to news and social media coverage to avoid fueling the flame of anxiety.

“When it comes to talking to individuals with autism about COVID-19, there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” said Graham. “Communicate in a way that works best for them – use plain language and avoid technical terms. Visual supports, such as social stories, videos and pictures can be extremely helpful when explaining a complex topic.”

Coping Strategies and Activities

Below you will find just a few tools and resources that can help youth and adults manage stress and anxiety related to COVID-19:

Access a full list of coping strategies and activities to help you and your loved one and stay safe during this public health crisis.

Practicing Optimism; Resilience

In addition to the resources noted above, read an article featuring Amy Kelly as she shares steps families and caregivers of individuals with special needs can take to provide reassurance to children and adults living with emotional, behavioral and cognitive differences. “Be the change you wish to see,” Kelly explains in the article. “Practice optimism and resiliency; demonstrate it to your family on a regular basis. Reframe how you look at the situation, and explain it to them. For example: Maybe your child can finish that art project he or she has been thinking about. Perhaps your child can take on a new job or chore now that the whole family is home and needs to pitch in. Emphasize what a ‘good helper’ he or she has become.”

Graham adds, “As we navigate these uncertain times, it is important to watch for signs of distress, as your loved one may need additional supports if he or she is feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Take cues from your child or loved one, and provide reassurance to help him or her feel safe, secure and more resilient as we look forward to a brighter – and healthier – future.”

Yolanda Graham, MD, is Senior Vice President and Chief Clinical/Medical Officer at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health

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