How to talk with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other special needs about Coronavirus

Andrew Seaman Ey5zzokyl0q Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and all children with special needs, are going through as tough a time as anyone during the current crisis. In some ways, they may be more confused and unsettled than usual.

Parents home with their children under these circumstances are wondering how they can help their kids and how they, themselves, can cope with the added stress.

Mary Jane Weiss, Ph.D., Executive Director of Programs in ABA & Autism at Endicott College, has these ideas for parents:

  • Individuals with autism benefit from structure and clarity. Maintain a daily routine that includes basics such as a standard wake-up time, getting dressed in the morning, eating meals on time; make a daily schedule so they know what to expect each day.
  • Remember to provide visual cues for tasks and activities. You can create your own without much effort using available household materials such, as a white board or post-its.
  • It is vital to get exercise every day and to break up sedentary schoolwork times with active breaks.
  • Use preferred activities as motivation. Specifically, follow less preferred activities (such as classroom worksheets) with highly preferred leisure activities, such as playing a game on the iPad or going out to play in the yard.
  • Focus on maintaining the skills that the child has mastered, rather than on learning new skills. The most important goal is to ensure that skills are not lost. Talk with your child’s teachers about the most important skills to practice and maintain.
  • Discuss the goals your child has been working on at school with your child’s teacher; prioritize skills that should be continued and determine how to place others on hold for a short time. Be sure to talk about how to incorporate motivation systems into the work you do with your child.
  • Think of fun ways to include children in daily household activities, like cooking and laundry. Many skills can be reinforced through these daily tasks, and they provide time for socialization with family members. For example, everyone can be included in matching socks, sorting items by color, measuring ingredients, stirring food, etc.
  • Ensure that information about Coronavirus is presented in a manner that is developmentally appropriate and that focuses on behaviors (e.g., maintaining distance, washing hands). Use visual strategies to help them demonstrate these skills (e.g. picture cues for hand washing).
  • Address the reduction in actual social contact by using available videoconferencing capabilities. This can be done with friends and relatives, but also teachers and classmates, if they’re available.
  • Limit exposure to news that might be worrisome and hard to comprehend. Instead, present material that is appropriate.

In terms of discussing COVID-19 itself, Dr. Weiss reports that several ASD-related organizations have published guides for parents with children on the spectrum. One is The Autism Educator. It has a free Coronavirus Social Narrative to help alleviate the fear and anxiety many children may be experiencing at this time.

Dr. Weiss says the Autism Society of North Carolina has a great visual storyboard that helps children learn how to avoid sharing germs to stay healthy while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a graphic for children that teaches the best way to wash one’s hands.

Finally, Autism Speaks has a guide on talking to your child about tragedy, six tips for the autism community.

A challenge, says Dr. Weiss, is focusing on simple messages.

For academic tasks, it might be helpful to use materials available on the computer. She offers the following resources and learning tools for those with ASD and other special needs:

  • Choiceworks – Scheduling and Calendar – May help individuals understand the length of confinement. The schedule can be used for daily activities. Very user-friendly.
  • Starfall – Educational Tools for Young Learners – This is especially helpful for reading and pre-reading children. Engaging game-based-learning.
  • Headsprout – This is helpful for pre-reading and reading children. Much of the learning is game-based, with lots of high-interest activities. Instructional sessions for component skills such as using the mouse are available.
  • Razkids /Reading A-Z – Razkids is also very helpful for reading and pre-reading children. Many instructional materials are available and there are 29 reading levels. The variety of topics is extensive and can be matched to student interests. There is also a Science A to Z section available.
  • Kahn Academy – This is useful for a wide range of academic review activities, including those for older learners or those with established skills.
  • Singapore Math – Useful for learning and review of math facts and concepts through Grade 4. Some printable worksheets are available.

The important message, during this time, advises Dr. Weiss, is to give children on the spectrum plenty of love and attention while also trying to maintain “business as usual” with set routines and schedules. Keep children engaged with activities they like during breaks from schoolwork and go easy on the talk of Coronavirus, even when speaking with other adults as they may understand more than you realize and they may pick up on tone or parental anxiety.

The material presented, as well as the instructional resources, she emphasizes, will help parents get through this trying period in American life.


About Endicott College

Endicott College offers doctorate, master’s, bachelor’s, and associate degree programs at its campus on the scenic coast of Beverly, Mass., with additional sites in Boston, online, and at U.S. and international locations. Endicott remains true to its founding principle of integrating professional and liberal arts education with internship opportunities across disciplines. For more, visit