Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 & Children with Special Needs Part 1


Should I be telling my child about COVID-19?

In the midst of anxiety, many parents are asking whether or not they should be telling their children about COVID-19. While the level of details that you provide should certainly vary from individual to individual, the simple answer is yes, you should be talking to your children about the virus. What we know from anxiety research, is that keeping your children in the know can actually help to ease anxiety. Giving your child facts and allowing them to ask questions — and for you to debunk any myths or irrational fears – will help your child feel safe and know what to do to keep themselves safe.


How do I talk to my child about COVID-19?

It is important that the language you use to explain Coronavirus is appropriate for your child’s developmental level. It is important to be honest and factual, while being aware of your child’s ability to process and understand the situation. Consider using graphics such as this Social Story by the Autism Educator or NPR’s Comic on Coronavirus. Be mindful of what your child may be learning from peers, the internet, or social media. Informing yourself of the facts will also help you to provide educated and factual information to your child. We also recommend speaking with your child in a calm, matter-of-fact tone to limit feelings of panic.


How can I help my child that is anxious or worried?

It is important to validate your child’s feelings of fear or worry so that your child feels heard. You can use statements such as, “I understand that you are worried” or “I know it can feel scary.” Providing information about what scientists and doctors are doing to help prevent the spread of the virus, such as closing schools or offices, may provide some relief for children. Processing your own anxiety about COVID-19 with an adult or trained professional may also assist you in speaking with your child. Children can pick up on parental stress and anxiety; thus, it is important to model to your child that you can remain calm while being informed and taking safety precautions. Keep in mind that anxiety is manifested in different ways, such as verbalizing fear or demonstrating changes in mood, behaviors, eating and sleeping habits. If you have concern that your child may be experiencing significant levels of distress, it may be helpful to seek support from a professional such as a therapist.


How do I explain “social distancing” to my child?

It is important for your child to understand that germs can spread from person to person. In this video from PBS, Curious George learns this very concept. For more advanced teenagers and adults, the CDC provides helpful documentation of how COVID-19 spreads. It is important for your child to understand that the reason we are staying home is to not only protect ourselves, but to protect others who may be at greater risk of getting sick. Because we can spread our germs to other people, staying home helps to keep other people safe, even if we ourselves do not feel sick.


How can I help protect my child?

Follow the guidance of the CDC, including avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. As a parent, you can model behaviors such as hand washing and covering of your mouth when coughing or sneezing. Break down steps using pictures or short phrases, such as this visual from STAR Autism Supports – for example, showing a picture of turning on the water, getting soap, washing hands, and drying hands. Showing a video or taking a picture of your child doing the behavior and showing it to them as a reminder of the steps may also be helpful.


Any recommendations for what to do while at home?

We know that many children with special needs, and in particular individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, have significant difficulty adjusting to changes in routine. You may consider creating a daily schedule for your child – such as this example by Jessica McHale. As much as you can, try to maintain a somewhat consistent routine with your child including their bedtime and wake time. Incorporating some physical activity into the day is also beneficial for mental and physical health. Scheduling breaks and times on electronics or other activities that will occupy their time while you can get your own work done may also be helpful.


Any recommendations for online schooling?

Many schools have implemented remote or online learning. You may consider encouraging your child to stretch their arms and legs or use a “fidget” (e.g., a stress ball, Thinking Putty) to help with attention and focus. If it is possible in your home, try to limit distractions in the child’s environment, such as setting up their school time at the kitchen table or another space that they do not have access to their toys or other belongings.


Click Here for Part 2 “How to Manage Anxiety.”


This post is part of a multi- part series of articles written by Dr. Jamie Barstein, child clinical psychologist at The Help Group with expertise in working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities as well as their family members. 

Contributions to this series were made by Dr. Laurie Stephens, Director of Program Development at The Help Group.