Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Christopher Lynch Ph.D.


Returning to Life with Autism in a Post-Pandemic World

5 sources of anxiety for children with autism.

Courtesy of Pixabay
The Post-Pandemic Phase Will Come with New Fears
Source: Courtesy of Pixabay

As the COVID-19 pandemic morphs into a different level of intensity, our daily lives will begin to change yet again. Although the trajectory is positive, there remain many unknowns and life as we know it will be quite different from life pre-pandemic (at least in the short to medium term).

Like all of us, children and teens are hopeful and pleased that the situation appears to be improving. However, the next phase of the pandemic comes with its own fears and anxieties. Some characteristics of autism may make these fears even more intense for kids on the spectrum.

5 sources of anxiety to be aware of include:

1. Fears for safety as restrictions are lifted.

As restrictions are lifted, we have to reassure our children that some actions are now lower-risk, even though the virus remains in our community. This reasoning may appear nonsensical for a child who thinks in black and white terms. For these children, “the virus is either here or it is completely gone.” Without absolute certainty, fear may intensify for kids on the spectrum as they are asked to increase their exposure to others.

Ways to Support:

  • Make sure that your child has a realistic understanding of how viruses spread so they can understand that risk will decrease as fewer people are infected. Use terms and explanations that the child can process and check that they understood you accurately.
  • Be a role model for your children in how you judge and adjust to risk. They are looking to you for cues on how to act as the situation evolves.
  • Monitor media exposure. Limit exposure to coverage that is graphic, highly speculative, or sensational.

2. Anxiety over changed routines.

Although children may look forward to returning to places and situations, they will likely have to do so in ways that they are not used to. Such changes in routine are challenging for anybody, but they can really ramp up anxiety for those on the spectrum.

Ways to Support:

  • Explain how a return to places and situations will be different. Go over the differences ahead of time so that your child is as prepared as possible.
  • Practice and rehearse how to respond to new routines.
  • Use visual supports to help your child understand new expectations for behavior.
  • Encourage your child to express any concerns over new routines so that you can address proactively.

3. Uncertainty over the resumption of activities.

As of the time of this writing, there is a lot more that is unknown than is known about how, if, and when common daily activities will start up again. Like all kids, autistic children are anxious to find out when activities such as in-person school, extracurricular activities, going out to eat, and visiting friends and relatives will resume.

Ways to Support:

  • Be honest but optimistic with your children. No one can be certain when particular activities will restart or how different they may be. However, we can emphasize that things are looking better and we can convey hope that more and more activities will resume as time goes on, even though such activities may look different.
  • Emphasize that any delay in resuming an activity is done out of the need for safety.
  • Highlight ways that you can resume activities partially—such as done virtually or in another modified way.

4. Renewed social anxiety as face to face interaction resumes.

Social anxiety is common in autism. Due to social distancing, this anxiety may have been lower during the pandemic. However, avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations can actually increase anxiety in the long run. Thus, there may be a temporary elevation of social anxiety as children return to more direct social interactions.

Ways to Support:

  • Review and practice any relaxation techniques that your child finds useful and discuss how to use these for coping with social anxiety.
  • Ease into social situations gradually, starting with situations and peers that your child feels comfortable with.

5. Coping with sensory overload as activities resume.

Sensory sensitivities are common in autism. Although quarantine created many challenges for our children, it often resulted in some relief from these sensitivities. There may be a resurgence of these sensitivities as children return to higher levels of sensory stimulation (e.g. crowds, noise, smells, etc.)

Ways to Support:

  • Anticipate situations that may be challenging and discuss these with your child before returning to highly stimulating environments.
  • Review coping strategies that have been useful for dealing with sensory sensitivities in the past and remind your child that these can still be effective.
  • Make sure that support persons are aware of any sensory sensitivities and know how to support your child through them.

Building on Resilience

Our children are highly resilient. With some planning and support, they will adjust to the next phase of the pandemic. By role-modeling resilience ourselves and by highlighting our children’s strengths, we can build upon their ability to cope and thrive whatever the circumstance.


About the Author

Christopher Lynch, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in stress and anxiety management for children with autism. He is the Director of the Pediatric Behavioral Medicine Department at Goryeb Children's Hospital.