Helping Children with Autism Cope with Colds and Flu

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA
Caring for a sick child isn’t easy, even under the best of circumstances. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental disabilities must deal with a unique set of challenges when their children get a cold or the flu.
For starters, it can be hard to tell what, if anything, is the matter. Some people with ASD seem to experience pain differently from typically developing individuals – some seem relatively unfazed by physical discomfort, while others seem hypersensitive to physical changes. Every child is different in this regard, and each has a different ability to communicate discomfort. While some children can verbalize what hurts and where they feel discomfort, others may not have the ability to do so and are reliant upon parents to detect observable symptoms.
Parents may have to discern illness based on changes in their child’s behavior, sleeping and eating patterns, and whether he (or she) is presenting obvious physical symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, or a fever. Subtle behaviors, if different from typical behavior, may also provide clues. For example, if your child seems “off” and is continually rubbing the side of his head, from ear to jaw, he may have an ear infection or a dental issue.
Determine how you can best support your child based on how he copes with illness.
Does he need to see a doctor, but resists leaving the house outside of regularly scheduled outings? If so, try using a visual schedule depicting: 1) a car ride to the doctor; 2) a stop at the pharmacy; and 3) returning home. This will provide a frame of reference for how the day will go.
Seek help from your medical provider(s).
If your child resists eating regular foods, ask your medical provider for a plan to ensure he is taking in the nutrients he needs. If sleeping is an issue, your medical provider may suggest a sleep aid such as melatonin or something stronger to help during this time. Having a plan developed with medical guidance will help you to feel supported during this stressful time.
Some children may have difficulty coping with trips to the doctor’s office or other medical providers. Attempt to make your child as comfortable as possible by bringing along some favorite items to help keep him engaged during the wait and the examination. It may be helpful to bring along another adult – a trusted person who can help keep the child comfortable and engaged so you can relate all necessary information to the medical professional. Providing a medical history and reporting visible symptoms will be especially important if your child cannot communicate verbally. Lastly, you may want to call your medical provider ahead of time to see if there is anything he or she can do to help accommodate a patient who has a lot of difficulty waiting. Perhaps you may be able to schedule the appointment first thing in the morning.
You can also be proactive and take steps when your child is healthy to make things easier when illness strikes. If he can communicate verbally, try talking with him about what if means to be sick, how to describe feeling ill, and what a trip to the doctor’s office entails. You can use pictures or stories to help facilitate this process. Some children may have success pointing to a chart of the body to indicate areas that might be feeling uncomfortable. You may also want to encourage your child to practice swallowing vitamins or accepting a sip of a nutritional shake, so if he needs to take medicine or a supplement during illness, the process seems more familiar.
Having a plan that you can put into effect when your child gets sick will help both of you feel better faster.
Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., BCBA, LABA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee Mass. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit