Autism Resources for Uncertain Times: Pandemic Coping Skills for Adults with ASD
Autism resources for adults with ASD during the pandemic must offer coping skills that are both effective and realistic. Here are some expert-recommended strategies built to withstand these strange times.
Change is sometimes harrowing. The ongoing global pandemic — and its mounting death toll, upended routines, financial instability, and social distancing — is testament to this.
Distress triggered by these unsettling times is perhaps felt more acutely by adults with autism, for whom change and disruptions in routine may be downright traumatic. Coping skills are absolutely necessary — for enduring these times without enduring undue emotional and psychological pain.
Adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) should use the following strategies (many suitable for adults with ADHD and other conditions as well) and autism resources to focus on two main areas: maintaining routines and prioritizing self-care.
Autism Coping Skills During the Pandemic
Maintain past routines as best as possible
When you are no longer physically leaving home for school or work, what adjustments can you make to continue and guard your routines as much as possible?
Your pre-pandemic schedule likely required you to wake up, eat breakfast, shower, and then leave the home at a certain time for work. If you’re now working from home, you can at least follow the first three steps in your routine at the same time. And instead of walking out the door, you can replace this step with going to a certain area of your home where work takes place.
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If your prior schedule incorporated lots of movement (like mine), make sure to keep it that way now as much as possible. As a professor, I used to ride my bike to work, and then walk from classroom to classroom and stand for long periods of time as I taught. At home, all of my work is confined to one room, meaning I could be sitting for hours on end if I don’t do something about it. Fortunately, I have an elliptical bicycle at home that I make sure to work into my days to feed that need for continued physical activity.
Daily routines that can likely stay in place now:
- Bedtime and wake time
- Mealtimes (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
- Hygiene (showering, brushing teeth, maintaining hair)
You need to take care of yourself to be at your best when dealing with uncertain situations. Effective self-care is unique to each individual, but all self-care focuses on maintaining mental, emotional, and physical health. It can look like:
- Taking short breaks through the day.
- Practicing breathing exercises. Examples include:
- Inhale and exhale slowly. As you breathe, inhale calm, exhale stress. Repeat three times.
- Inhale and clench your fists. Take a long breath out and release fists. Repeat three times.
- Engaging in physical exercise
- Continuing to take prescribed medications
- Use pill organizers if needed
More ways to manage when normal routines are disrupted1:
1. Remain connected with family, friends, supports, and others who are important to you. Given social distancing, make use of the phone, social media, and other tools.
2. Be careful about fusing with or absorbing angst from others. It’s a myth that autistic people don’t perceive other people’s emotions. Many adults with autism believe it’s actually the other way around – we may experience emotional fusing and take in emotions from others a bit too much, leading to overwhelm and shutdown.
3. Develop and differentiate between plan A and plan B. Our A plans (life before the pandemic) are pretty much blown out of the water. It’s important to really think and organize around life now (plan B).
4. Get outside on bright, sunny days (in a safe manner). Nature can be very restorative. Whether you’re walking or riding your bike, bring masks and gloves when heading out, and maintain proper physical distance.
5. Recognize that keeping safe during the pandemic requires more cognitive energy. Dena Gassner, my friend and fellow advocate, describes the autistic mind as a “cognitive rain barrel.” This barrel gets drained out by things we have to do that require thought and energy. For example, instead of going out to the store like we used to, there’s a lot more planning involved. We have to think about masks, gloves, social distancing, waiting in line outside the store, and many other things to remain safe. In the end, our barrel is drained out, and we may not have as much energy to do other things. This is tied in with recognizing that more energy is required is reducing our own expectations.
6. Stimming is not regression – it’s coping. Many autistic adults are relying more on soothing and coping behaviors. Some may feel that they are “regressing” back to these behaviors, but this is not the case. Autistic individuals need to give themselves permission to engage in self-regulatory behaviors in these stressful times – so feel free to self-stim!
7. Simplify when heading out. Bring as little as possible when going out, except for must-haves like masks. Plan how much cash you’ll bring in advance or use credit cards.
8. Set up a protocol for returning home and disinfecting items. This includes:
- Leave shoes in the garage or by the door; designate inside and outside shoes
- Wipe down surfaces
- Put worn clothes in the washer or a separate, isolated area before heading to the laundromat
1. TheAutismEducator.ie: This website by Amanda McGuiness has a short, downloadable comic/narrative that explains the pandemic and all that’s going on in accessible language.
2. Learn Autism: A relatively new organization that I’m also a part of, Learn Autism focuses on parent-driven, research-based information. They offer short videos that can be helpful right now for parents supporting autistic children.
3. AsIAm: A nonprofit that provides resources for the autism community in Ireland. This site has great information for all autistic individuals on coping during the pandemic.
4. Autistically Allied: See their pandemic survival kit for autistics guide, co-written by an autistic individual.
5. Next for Autism: A relatively new organization, Next for Autism has a number of helpful webinars for autistic and non-autistic individuals. Check out their “How to Structure Your Day” webinar.
6. Community Heroes: A free, illustrated e-guide released by Clemson University on being brave in the face of a global pandemic.
7. Autism Speaks: Check out the organization’s pandemic information hub, which includes resources for autistic adults (disclosure: I am a current board member).
8. Autism Society: Has webinars, toolkits, and other resources for autistic adults and families on remaining safe, coping, and being productive (disclosure: I am an advisory board member).
Autism Resources: Next Steps
- Think You May Have ASD? Take This Self-Test
- Understand: Is It ADHD or Autism? Or Both?
- Learn: The Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Symptoms of Autism in Adults
The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Living in Uncertain Times: Coping Strategies for Adults on the Autism Spectrum” by Stephen Shore, Ed.D., which was broadcast live on July 9, 2020.
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