Baylor College of Medicine

A family of three playing at home.

Challenges of autism treatment amidst COVID-19

Homa Shalchi


Houston, TX -

Coronavirus has halted the routines of many, causing stress and disorder, including for the families of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A Baylor College of Medicine expert explains the challenges families are facing with ASD treatment throughout the pandemic, and offers some solutions. 

“We’ve moved to telehealth where we can have video-based and telephone appointments with families, but that does present some limitations for some types of therapy sessions,” said Dr. Robin Kochel, associate professor of pediatrics-psychology at Baylor and associate director for research at the Texas Children’s Hospital Autism Center.

More interactive forms of therapy, such as applied behavior analysis, are challenging to pursue at this time. A therapist typically works one-on-one with a child or in a small group, asking them to do things in the moment while using positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, this poses difficulties, as these interactions cannot be done virtually. Some healthcare providers may try to modify their programs by working through a parent. For example, a therapist may advise a parent or caregiver to use specific toys to walk through a play-based interaction with their child. This can be complicated and time consuming, but it’s an alternative that may work for some families.

People in general struggle with change, and transitions can be a tougher battle for children with ASD. A changed schedule can lead to increases in behavior problems. Parents are also managing a shift in routine and may feel stressed over how to balance it all. Kochel suggests setting a new schedule with your child is a beneficial way to create a new normal.

“This is really challenging for parents of children with ASD. You are not alone, and you’re doing the best you can,” Kochel said. “Talk through these things and come up with a schedule to feel productive while supporting your child in the best ways, but don’t be too hard on yourself.”

Navigating through a global pandemic with young children or more dependent children is especially challenging. Parents and caregivers need an outlet to discuss their frustrations and exchange helpful information. Kochel suggests visiting Facebook groups for parents of children on the spectrum, or scheduling a virtual happy hour with other parents from their child’s school or therapies to discuss tips and challenges of changing routines amid the pandemic. Families appreciate connecting with others that truly understand their situation. 

“At the Autism Center at Texas Children’s Hospital, we recently outreached to our families to ask what would be most helpful to them right now. Many said that they would appreciate an ‘Ask-the-Expert’ panel, so we are in the process of putting that together so families can join a virtual meeting and get answers and recommendations from our providers. Hopefully this will be a valuable resource for them.”

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