How the pandemic is impacting the autism community and how Penn State Health is responding


HERSHEY, Pa. (WHTM) — Everyone is being impacted by the pandemic differently, but for those on the autism spectrum, it can be particularly difficult. That’s because many people with autism have a high need for structure and stability, and the pandemic has taken most of that away.

Experts at the Penn State Health Psychiatry Clinic say for many people with autism, the pandemic is heightening anxiety that was already there before.

Doctors tell abc27 people with autism with sensory issues might struggle with wearing masks. Those with intellectual challenges may not understand the idea of contagious diseases or not being allowed to see loved ones.

What’s more, transitions can be hard for children on the spectrum, so having multiple forms of schooling and constantly switching from virtual to in-person learning can be grueling.

Experts say parents should talk to their kids about what’s going on, validate their feelings and frustrations and be honest when they don’t know the answer to questions.

Caregivers are also encouraged to look for opportunities to create structure and routine for things that can be controlled, even if it’s as simple as keeping “pizza night” on Fridays.

Dr. Michael Murray, who is the medical director for the Penn State Health Autism and Developmental Disorders Clinic, says the Department of Psychiatry has been creating resources for the autism community across the state.

“Those are in a site called and they’re divided by different stakeholder groups and one of them is the general community, so if you’re a general community member and want to know more about how you can support your neighbors with autism, there’s resources there to explain how you can be helpful,” said Dr. Murray.

Murray says some of those ways include showing thanks to people for wearing their masks even though it can be uncomfortable and letting caregivers handle situations when challenges arise in public places, like the grocery store.

The Department of Psychiatry is currently brainstorming how to help patients with autism once the pandemic ends, knowing reengaging with the community may prompt confusion.

They’re planning ways to pivot the message to make it understandable that it will one day be safe to return to a sense of normalcy.

Doctors want to decrease the anxiety of more change and increase the use of those skills people used every day pre-pandemic.

The clinic has expanded telehealth services and launched new support groups to help get Midstate families through this time.

“We’ve started some online support groups for teenagers on the spectrum to try to have and have a safe place to talk about how difficult this is for them,” said Dr. Murray. “We also are starting, later this month, a support group for caregivers of children with autism because a lot, particularly for kids who have more significant needs, a lot of service delivery has fallen on the parents.”

Details about resources for people with autism and their loved ones can be found on Penn State Health’s website.

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