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Lessons From the Field: Autism and COVID-19 Mental Health

Three ways we can learn to be resilient during COVID from those with autism.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are wonderfully made and incredibly resilient. In the midst of COVID-19, each individual has experienced difficulties and hardships. How can we learn from the resilience of those with autism as we enter into a continued season of the pandemic? Celeste Jones draws from her experience to demonstrate three ways we can learn from those with autism during COVID.

Celeste Jones, used with permission
Source: Celeste Jones, used with permission

Celeste Jones is an associate professor of clinical psychology and director of clinical training at George Fox University. She is a board-certified, licensed psychologist who specializes in working with children with autism spectrum disorder and their families. Her research interests are in the broad areas of adversity and resilience in children and families, and in diversity populations. Jones is also vice-chair of the Oregon Board of Psychology.

Jamie Aten: What is one of the reasons you appreciate working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder?

Celeste Jones: I don’t like your new haircut.” For those of us who know and love and work with individuals with autism spectrum disorder, this kind of unfiltered honesty is a welcome and refreshing change of pace. No reading between the lines is necessary in these conversations. However, this type of decreased social filtering means that people with ASD can have great difficulty navigating the social world. Having ASD also can mean difficulty with flexibility and unexpected change. In sum, these are a few of the reasons why social interactions for people with ASD most often occur in routine, structured activities like school, work, or regularly scheduled extracurricular activities. COVID-19 has been a large-scale disruption for all of us, having a disproportionately large impact on individuals with ASD and their families. I’ve spent the last 15 years researching and working with individuals with ASD and their families, being endlessly inspired by their stories, and coming to appreciate the resilience often demonstrated in this population.

JA: What are some lessons we can learn from those with ASD, especially during the difficulties of COVID-19?

CJ: Here are just three of the many life lessons I’ve learned in this work, with particular attention to the ongoing stress of COVID-19.

  1. Be honest. The trustworthiness of individuals with ASD is an endearing quality in a time when increasing online social networking has many of us cultivating an image for the world to see. With COVID-19 quarantines and isolation, many have turned to digital modes of interaction (e.g. Zoom, social media). The screen introduces a level of distance from the other, there are different social cues and social monitoring required, and there are increased risks around conversation privacy. For these reasons and more, digital interactions don’t quite measure up in the moments when you want to spend an evening together with friends over a bowl of popcorn being honest and vulnerable, sharing burdens and joys, and connecting over deep belly laughs. But these moments remain essential to human wellbeing, particularly in times of stress. So in the absence of these socially connected and supportive moments, remember to find outlets for honest connection, and to take breaks to be honest with yourself as well. How are you doing really?
  2. Embrace your limits. Whether or not your particular set of human difficulties has a label like ASD, it is important to remember sometimes that you are not, actually, a superhero. You actually do need to sleep a reasonable amount, eat food that makes you feel good, move your body regularly, pay attention to your emotions, learn new things, and do something meaningful to you. COVID-19 has increased workloads in many industries tremendously, and has required new levels of flexibility and problem-solving with shifts to online and working from home. Many parents who are working from home have also been overseeing children doing school from home. In turn, everyone staying home has doubled the housework load. Increased stress (financially, or related to increased demands or changes to routines, etc.) has been part and parcel of life during COVID-19. From what I’ve learned in overseeing my son’s second-grade math this year, this all adds up to way more to do than is humanly possible. Remind yourself to take a note from people with ASD who’ve learned to graciously and self-compassionately face their limits on a daily basis.
  3. Find your people. For several years, I hosted a high-functioning ASD teen boys group in my practice. Several teens would come together to connect socially in the first half, and to do some social cognition development in the second half. The first half of the group, I let them talk about whatever they wanted and let them negotiate what game or activity they wanted to do while I observed. What was meaningful about that time was how quickly I became the outsider. Outside of the group, one of the boys had been talking ad nauseam to myself and his family about a YouTuber whom none of us had seen or knew anything about. We all had to stop him to give us more context so we could follow his thought process. But in the boys group, the boys all seemed to know the context! Nobody needed to stop anybody for clarification, they’d all seen the YouTuber, and the conversation about it came alive like only a boys group could allow. I saw the boy relax into himself and into conversation (with perhaps quirky overtures by neurotypical standards). But having the right people around, people who understood him without explanation, made all the difference. It reminded me that being socially refreshed isn’t about having a high number of friends necessarily, but having high-quality friends. So in this time of limited interactions, when you can’t see everyone, perhaps just finding your tribe will be sufficient.

JA: What one last piece of advice or encouragement would you like to share?

CJ: I’m hopeful that with continued diligence, COVID-19 will come to an end, and we’ll find a new normal. Until then, I hope we can take some lessons from people with ASD who’ve been practicing honesty, compassionately facing their limits, finding the value of a few great people, and in so doing, fostering resilience in the face of adversity.