Support Understanding

Individuals with autism may have varied levels of understanding about the COVID-19 virus, how it spreads, and how to reduce risk of exposure. Here are several strategies to use to provide additional meaning to this complex scenario.

  • Describe the virus and current situation (e.g. closures, social distancing) in concrete language and terms and avoid flowery or abstract phrasing. The understanding of abstract phrases and metaphors such as “she is under the weather”, “she caught the virus”, and “he is scared stiff about this” can be difficult for individuals with autism and can create confusion (Lipsky, 2013). Using direct and clear language is recommended. Though stark-sounding, phrases like “The coronavirus is a type of germ. These germs are very tiny, and when they get inside your body, they can make you sick” (, may be easier for individuals with autism to understand.
  • Use a social narrative, a story that clarifies a situation and possible responses through modified text, photos, or the use of technology (Wong et al., 2014). Individuals on the autism spectrum benefit from receiving information in multiple formats, as they often have receptive language deficits (Mody et al., 2013). Several example social narratives have been developed to give individuals more information about COVID-19, help them understand how to reduce risk, provide insight into how they may be feeling, and offer assurance that those feelings are normal. Reading the narratives to/with the individual with autism regularly across several days is helpful. Revisit and adjust as needed and circumstances shift.
  • Provide visual supports to offer guidance on coronavirus specific actions and behaviors. The “rules” around how we greet people (e.g. no more handshakes), how we interact with people, even family members (e.g. social distancing), and how often/when we wash our hands (e.g. every time we come inside) are changing. Using visual cues to break down the steps of these new expectations may be helpful, as individuals with autism may respond best to a more explicit and concrete explanation. Several examples are provided.
  • Offering visual cues to clarify the passage of time may be helpful. Individuals with autism may have trouble perceiving the passage of time, an invisible concept, and the use of a monthly, weekly, and/or daily calendar may assist in tracking time out of school/in a quarantine situation. While we do not know an “end” date to today’s uncertainty, marking the passage of time as well as including favorite activities, such as shows, online meetups, or game night on the calendar can be a helpful coping strategy.