The pandemic has radically changed the lives of many children with changes in school attendance, reduced socialization and more time spent with family. Such big changes can be difficult for most children to deal with, but for children with autism spectrum disorder who thrive with established routines, the pandemic presents a completely different challenge. At the Virtual Meeting of Pediatric Academic Societies in 2021, Hannah Jin Park, BA, a research assistant at Boston Medical Center in Allston, Massachusetts, presented the results of a study examining how the pandemic had affected the families of children with autism spectrum disorder.
Participants were recruited from previous studies of maternal depression, autism spectrum disorder, and childhood developmental behavior problems. The health care provider received a survey by phone with 92 questions, including questions about:
Employment – Did the adults have fewer working hours? Had an adult been on leave? Was there job loss? Home Life – Could the family have childcare or babysitting when needed? Emotional Health – Were There Problems Accessing Therapy or Mental Health Care? Physical Health – Was the family as active as before the pandemic, or was the amount of physical activity reduced?
The sample of families included a large proportion of black and Hispanic families, as well as families who received public health insurance through the Medicaid program.
Park said there were many areas where the impact was similar across all families, such as having trouble finding food or a reduction in work, as well as complete job losses. All families also reported greater verbal conflict among the adults in the household, noting that discipline had been stricter during the pandemic. Most families noted 1 positive outcome of the pandemic: more quality time spent with the children. However, in the families with a child with an autism spectrum disorder, the parents noted that the child had more behavioral and sleeping problems. There were also more physical conflicts among the children in those households.
The study highlighted the profound impact the pandemic had on certain types of families, that is, those with a child with an autism spectrum disorder and low-income, mostly black, indigenous, or colored families. Park concluded that these effects could have consequences that last well beyond the end of the pandemic.