Dear Dr. Nancy:  What Should I Do to Prepare My Son with Autism for the Coronavirus’s Impact?

child with mask virus

First of all, please don’t panic.  For most of your children, with healthy immune systems, the virus will manifest as a cold, if they show any symptoms at all.  For those of us in the older age bracket it is more serious, particularly if you have other health conditions or are of advanced age.  We have to take this concern seriously, but we also have to base our response on science and not on scare tactics.  Here are some things you should do now.

Start rewarding your child each time for lengthy hand washing.  A good guide is to sing happy birthday once through while he (or you) lather and rinse.  It is a surprising long time.  Good hand washing is, as we know, the single best method of prevention for illness.  For small children or kids with some disabilities, a little extra motivation may keep them from catching the virus.

While I think that the purchasing of rolls and rolls of back up toilet paper is unnecessary, there are some things you might want to purchase now.  Stock up on his favorite foods just in case you have to self-quarantine, especially if they are hard to find.  Secretly purchase and hide some fun treats or toys that you can pull out if your family has to self-quarantine.  If you can, load up on his medicine so you have an extra week or two, just in case you can’t go to the pharmacy.

If there is one thing you might want to stock up on, it is Kleenex.  For most children and healthy adults, getting the coronavirus will be like getting a cold.

If your child has autism or is young, be prepared with a visual story or script in case of a major schedule change like school closings or family quarantine.  Write a social story or script that is simple and clear, with what is happening and how long it may last.  If you don’t know, describe the longest that you think it could last.  Try to avoid uncertainty and focus on what you do know.

If your child is unlikely to cooperate with a mask while sick, it might help to practice wearing a mask for short but regular sessions in order to build up to enough time for a trip to the store or the doctor.  But remember, a mask is only helpful for someone who has an illness and wants to keep from giving it to others.  It will not keep a healthy person from catching the illness, and most will only remain effective for a short time.

Have a script/ plan ready for preferred activities that might get cancelled.  It will be easier to explain if you are not caught unprepared.

If school is cancelled, create a home school schedule for at least a couple of hours a day.  The routine will be helpful to your child, both as a calming strategy and to keep his academics from regressing.  Keep it positive and fun, using frequent small rewards for work completed or time on task.  Be realistic though, home is not school, and your child will only be willing to do so much.

I know that most parents say they can’t get sick and so they just don’t.  That may not work this time.  Please, please make a plan now for caregiving for your child if you are sick.  In addition to identifying a familiar family member or caregiver who can take over, write a script that you, or they can go over with your child in the event that you are quarantined and/ or sick.

Update your files for whoever may need them, with your child’s immunizations, health records, emergency plans, behavior plans, scripts for calming, and anything else they may need.  Have the file in a safe but obvious place if you are out of commission for a while.

One more thing.  I just got this from the University of Cincinnati Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCCEDD).  It may be helpful to some of you.

The Administration for Community Living (ACL) has created an information resource page, What Do Older Adults and People with Disabilities Need to Know About Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)?   The link is     The page describes actions that everyone can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and all respiratory diseases, resources for inclusive emergency management, and links to the latest updates and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If specific guidance on additional prevention and treatment recommendations for older adults and people with disabilities is issued, ACL will post on this page.


Stay safe, and remember what my grandmother always said to me:  “This too shall pass.”




***   The recommendations in this column are not intended for a specific child, but are general ideas that work with many youngsters who have autism spectrum disorders or developmental disabilities.  If general suggestions do not work, it is strongly recommended that you seek guidance from your existing, local behavioral support person or from a professional who is trained and certified in behavior analysis.

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