Adults with ASD Coping with COVID-19

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; COVID-19 Topics

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

[This column was published in The West Springfield Republican on 5/28/20, and in Wicked Local Holbrook on 7/15/20.]

What is a reasonable emotional response for adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during a pandemic? I have been asking myself this question ever since COVID-19 caused schools to close, forced adults to work from home, and turned everyone’s well-established routines upside down.

Just like the rest of us, adults with ASD are grieving their pre-pandemic lives. Everyone has been disappointed or frightened by the countless cancellations, grim news reports, reduced grocery store hours, and having to wear a mask to go anywhere in the community. We are all in this together, feeling frustrated, afraid, sad, and isolated.

These feelings are natural responses to what is happening in the world right now. This pandemic has created a new normal for everyone, and we are all struggling to find equanimity in our lives. The truth is, the world is always changing and we can’t control that, but we can control how we respond to uncertainty. We need to help each other find a sense of who we are in this new reality. 

Adults with ASD will learn new ways of coping with stress because they have dedicated support from their caregivers and family members. However, they will need even more support in order to learn how to manage difficult emotions and stress during this time. 

People with ASD need to be reassured that the emotions they are feeling are normal. The alarming events of the past three months have seriously impacted their lives and they need to talk about how they are feeling. They need helpers who will actively listen to them. Caregivers should be honest and try their best to ensure that the person with ASD has their full attention when he (or she) needs to share his thoughts. Caregivers need to provide honest feedback presented in a way the person will respond to best.

For example, a woman with ASD may be devasted because she feels like she will never see her friends from work again. It is important to recognize and validate that she may not see her friends for a long time, but she could stay connected to them by using video conferencing or talking on the phone until it is safe to see them physically again. It is important to help her understand that she can have difficult feelings and responses and still move forward with her life during the pandemic.

Adults with ASD need their caregivers to help them overcome their own unique obstacles and emotions. With support and kindness, they can learn that managing difficult emotions is a part of what being alive is all about. No one will have the same life they had before the pandemic. We will all grieve in our own way, and there is no way of escaping this grief. We have all lost a lot, and many of those losses will be felt forever.

But this crisis has also provided us with opportunities to make different choices that can change our lives – and the lives of others – for the better. We can learn to actively listen to each other, be more understanding and kinder to everyone we encounter, and be grateful for all of the different people who make our lives more vibrant and help us become more resilient in the face of fear, uncertainty, and loss.

Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Director of Clinical Services for the May Center for Adults Services in Western Massachusetts. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 262) or at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit