• Christopher Lynch

Returning to Life in a Post-Pandemic World: 5 Sources of Anxiety for Autistic Children

The Next Phase of the Pandemic Will Bring Both Hope and Fears (Courtesy of Pixabay)

As the COVID-19 pandemic moves to a different level of intensity, our daily lives will begin to change yet again. Although the overall direction of change is a positive one, there remain many unknowns and life as we know it will be quite different from life before the pandemic (at least in the short to midterm).

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.

In my work with kids on the autism spectrum, I am finding 5 general areas of concern arising as the world begins to reopen. These are:

1) Fears about catching the virus as restrictions are lifted.

As restrictions are lifted, we have to reassure our children that some actions are now safer even though the virus is not completely gone. This may not make sense to a child who thinks in black/white terms. For these children, it is more natural to think: “the virus is either here or it is completely gone”. Without being able to feel reassured, fear may intensify for children as they are asked to increase 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 be sure to 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 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.

  • It may be useful to rehearse how to respond to new routines. Use of visual supports can help your child to understand new expectations for behavior.

  • Encourage your child to express any concerns about changes in routine 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 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 every day 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-even if done virtually or in another modified way.

4) Renewed social anxiety as face to face interaction resume.

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 plan on how to use for 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 help to build upon their ability to cope and thrive whatever the circumstance.

For more ways to reduce anxiety for kids on the spectrum see my resources:

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