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How to Explain a Global Health Crisis to Children with Autism

Tips from research and clinical practice provide guidance.

Well, it's official. We are living through a pandemic. Most of us have never experienced anything like this before and are feeling concerned and overwhelmed.

Since many states across the U.S. (and around the world) are closing schools, canceling public gatherings, and closing non-essential government buildings (e.g. museums, parks, etc), children's daily lives will be impacted even if they do not get sick.

Given that many children with autism have social-communication challenges, it might seem daunting to try to explain something like this. After all, if we can barely understand it ourselves (I seem to ask myself, "How did we get here?" at least twice a day), how can we help children understand without scaring them?

Hopefully, these tips can help parents/caregivers as we all try to navigate this challenging time. The information below is a synthesis of information about how to help children get through traumatic situations, online resources, and general tips for communicating with kids who have ASD.

  1. Make sure to take care of yourself. Remember the airline safety briefing that tells adults to "put on your own oxygen mask before helping others"? Well, it turns out that the saying applies to challenging or traumatic experiences and children's well-being too. Children cope better when their parents are resilient and have strong social supports (see this article for more helpful info).
  2. Try to establish a "new normal" in terms of daily routines. Children tend to like predictability and routines, and it can be tricky without school to structure the day. It might help to make a daily schedule while schools are closed so that kids know what will happen during the day and when it will happen. Both the article above and the one below (in item #3) touch upon the importance of routines, and there are many online resources that include daily calendar examples.
  3. Speak with kids about current events, but use age-appropriate language that they can understand. This article gives some great tips about how to talk to kids depending on their age (e.g. kids under 3 are less likely to understand complex explanations, so it might be enough to say, "There are germs around that are making people sick, but we can all stay safe by washing our hands").
  4. For children with ASD or other social-communication challenges, it can be helpful to use visuals to help explain both what is happening (e.g. there are germs making people sick) and what to do (e.g. wash our hands, cover our cough, etc). This social story is particularly good, as it includes helpful images about both COVID-19 itself, best practices for good hygiene, and information about school/recreation closures. Plus, there is a free printable version on the website where parents/caregivers can fill in information that applies to their family (e.g. there is a blank space to fill in "school is closed until _____").

Hopefully, the above advice can help parents and caregivers of kids with ASD during this tough time. Stay safe, everyone!


Website for the Corona virus social story (written by Amanda McGuinness):

More from Katherine K.M. Stavropoulos Ph.D.
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