Autism and Coronavirus: Helping Students Understand

What's important about Autism and Coronavirus?


Why do we need to tell autistic students about the Coronavirus? Because most students with autism or other communication challenges  already know about it. It doesn’t matter if they are young or older. They may have a lot of language or demonstrate limited communication skills. But in some way they probably know something is different. That’s how it works.

Our students will notice something strange like a person wearing a face mask. They will pick up fragments of information from TV or people talking. Perhaps they sense your anxiety. Or they may even see pictures of people wearing hazmat suits.

It all creates anxiety. And student anxiety will rise when schools close and the student’s daily schedules and routines change unexpectedly. And that is exactly what may be happening.

Several states have already announced closing schools for several weeks. Probably more will follow.

How do you help?
Parents and teachers need to give information to their students. But here is what’s important to understand. Just telling them is not enough. This is a really important time to make it visual.

Create a conversation book
Creating written conversations is really one of my favorite visual techniques. I’ll describe the procedure here. Of course, you’ll modify it as needed for your child or your student, depending on age and level of understanding. But here it is.

Get a folder or binder or notebook
1. Label it.
I think books need names.  You can call it The Coronavirus Book. Or call it "Emily's Conversation Book." Or you or your student may come up with something more creative.  That’s OK. Just give it a name.

2. Have a conversation with the student about the coronavirus.
But here’s what is important.  Write down whatever you talk about.

  • Ask the student with autism what he/she already knows about the coronavirus. Write it down.
  • Explain the situation in a clear but simple way. Write it down.
  • You might also explain that what you hear on TV can be very confusing. But write it down.
  • Ask him what questions he has.  Write down the answers.
  • Tell her what questions you have. Write the answers.

You can ask things like:

  • What are you worried about?
  • Does something make you afraid?
  • What do you need to do to be safe?
  • Why do you need to wash your hands?

Be sure to affirm to students that they are safe. Parents and teachers will help them.

Remember this
Don’t get hung up on the writing part.  You can write it.  The student can write it. Type it on the computer. It doesn’t matter. Remember, this is not a lesson in handwriting. It’s a communication activity.

Add some pictures
Find them on the internet. Draw them. Take photos. Cut them out of a magazine. Use a computer picture program if you have one. They don’t all need to be the same style. But the pictures will add context. They will help the student remember the conversation. And they will add some entertainment to the activity.

Here' an example of a simple conversation

written conversation

Here’s a really important part
Sometimes people try to write all of the information in one big conversation or one big story. I prefer to do it in a different way. 

I like to cover the information in several smaller conversations on different but related topics. Write each one as a separate page or “chapter” in your book. For example, separate topics can include:

Why do I need to wash my hands.
What is a virus
Why do people wear masks.

Make sure it’s personalized
What kinds of topics do you need to have conversations about? Make sure you are including topics that are very important to this individual.

  • What surprised me?
  • Why Disneyland is closed.
  • Why I can’t watch March Madness on TV.
  • Why Louie is not going to work.
  • Why they didn’t have any toilet paper at the grocery store.
  • Why we won’t go on vacation during spring break.
  • When will I go back to school?
  • What is a virus and how does it work?
  • What does a virus look like?

Don’t be surprised if the topic of greatest interest to this student is not really the main point of the national emergency. That’s the way students with autism make connections sometimes.

This is an interactive activity
Remember, you are having conversations with the student and then you are writing that information in the book. That means you do this together. You can write what you think needs to be in the book but also write what he/she communicates. It's interactive. 

There's not a magic formula for written conversations. But when you  know a student, you'll know what to include in the book.

What students do
When students are unsure or anxious about situations, it’s not unusual to revisit topics over and over. If that happens, here’s what you can do.

When a topic gets expanded, say “Oh, we didn’t put that in your book yet.” Then add that information or question to your Coronavirus Book. (This is one reason I like to make separate pages or chapters for different topics. Then we can add information to the correct page.)

If the student is more apt to repeat or perseverate on a concept, you can say, “We already wrote about that in your book.” Then direct him to find that topic in the book and re-read it or go over it again.

It’s a strange thing, but having the information in a visual or written form seems to “anchor” it a bit. Revisiting it over and over helps the anxiety go away.

The book becomes a very important tool
Putting this information in the book gives you and the student the ability to go back and review it over and over again. You are showing the student that you understand his questions and concerns. Recording the conversations in writing makes them "stick."

It's strange, but that ability to repeat and revisit the topic provides a sense of comfort that a conversation that is only verbal doesn't accomplish in the same way.

This is what’s tough
Unexpected surprises are the worst for these students.  It’s difficult because they can’t prepare for the unexpected and they can’t easily shift when something occurs. But the conversation book is a perfect tool to help with that. 

If you are anticipating something that will possibly or probably happen, try writing about it in your conversation book. Give information that something MIGHT happen. It’s a great concept to learn.

visual card - What is going to happen?

You can even have a written conversation about how sometimes surprises happen. Sometimes we don’t have school or sometimes there is no toilet paper at the grocery store, but that is OK. 

Or just write about how sometimes we have unexpected surprises. You can say something like “I don’t like unexpected surprises. But if I get a surprise we can write about it in the book and that helps me feel better.”

It’s a long-term tool
Using a book for written conversations is not just a tool for autism and the coronavirus. You can use the same strategy for any topic that causes problems for a child.

This is a technique you can continue to use long term. It gives an opportunity to expand conversation skills, develop memories and deepen understanding.

P.S. These written conversations are somewhat different from Carol Gray's Social StoriesTM which are another tool for giving information to students. Creating her Social Stories follows a more structured formula and defined criteria. Here’s a story that Carol wrote called My Story About Pandemics and the Coronavirus. Social StoriesTM are written by the teacher or parent for the student.

The written conversations that I’m describing in this post are a less formal but a very valuable tool to capture the spontaneous conversations you have to help students understand our confusing world. These are written together with input from both the teacher or parent and the student. 

P.P.S This is important. It doesn't matter if students can read. Create your book in a way that the student will understand. If they can read it, that's great. Or you can read it to them. Include enough pictures to keep their interest.  It's really a personalized formula.

P.P.P.S  How have you been preparing your students with autism to manage this unexpected Coronavirus crisis?  Please share below.

Here's another helpful post. Check out the Autism Survival Toolbox

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  1. Linda Hodgdon, very useful information indeed. There’s continuity in your suggested
    book on Corona virus if it contains visuals which will attract students’interest.

    Thank you so much! Sally TRB

    1. Yes! Adding pictures, no matter what kind, improves engagement with the book. When students participate with the content in the book and adding the pictures, it increases their ownership.

  2. Linda – We received the link to this story regarding the coronavirus. Do we have your permission to send the link to the UNC TEACCH Autism Program families? It is a wonderful resource and we know it would be helpful to our families sequestered at home.

    Thank you,
    Ruth Thomson, MHSA
    Resource and Referral Specialist
    UNC TEACCH Autism Program

  3. Hi Linda,

    My name is Moira Leon and I am the Program Coordinator of the North River Collaborative, Community Based Vocational Program in Rockland, MA. One of my students read your blog and it inspired him to write a short story based on some of the questions. I would like to send you the book if that would be acceptable?

    I can be reached at

    Thank you,

    Moira Leon

  4. Thanks for the tip to use a book for long-term conversations. My youngest son has autism and I really want to help him learn and understand what is going on in the world right now. I’ll try using a book with written conversations to teach him about the pandemic.

    1. Thanks for letting me know you like the idea. I would love to hear what happens when you use your book with your son.

  5. Thank you for not gearing this ONLY toward children. I work with autistic adults and finding resources can be extremely difficult due to the tendency to forget that adults can have autism too. Great post.

    1. Thanks for reminding us all that individuals of all ages can experience the challenges of autism. An issue like dealing with Coronavirus masks can cause problems that others don’t understand.

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