COVID-19 and Autism

Tackling Social Skills for Children with Autism during Social Distancing

The coronavirus pandemic is a challenging time for all of us, and it can be especially difficult for individuals with autism. Family routines have been disrupted, social outlets have been removed, and professional supports have been decreased or eliminated. Our team has put together resources and activities to help keep your loved ones busy and engaged.

Webinar Series
Our Center’s experts are hosting a free COVID-19 Webinar Series that is open to the public. Each webinar will provide strategies and resources to help families affected with autism as they navigate this difficult time. Participants will have the opportunity to ask the experts questions.

Past COVID-19 Webinar Presentations

Conversation Skills

Research has suggested that teaching active listening skills is a critical step in promoting good conversational skills in children with social difficulties (Frankel & Myatt, 2003).

  • Clapping Game.  Pick a target word or have your child pick a target word.  You will say the target word along with distractor words (words either related in theme or similar sounds).  Every time you say the target word have your child clap.  You can make the task more challenging by increasing the rate at which you say the words.
  • Simon Says. An adult takes the role of "Simon" and gives instructions, such as put your hands on your head, to the other players.  The players will only follow the instructions when prefaced with the phrase “Simon says.”  If you follow the command when not prefaced by “’Simon Says” the player is out. 
  • The Telephone Game.  The first player will come up with a single word or phrase and whisper it in the ear of the second person in the line. The second player will repeat it to the next player and so on.  When the last player is reached they announce the message that they heard.  You can make the game harder by saying a longer phrase. 
  • Freeze Dance.  Encourage your child to dance or move to music.  When the music stops they need to freeze.   
  • Traditional board games such as Zingo and Guess Who can also be used to promote listening. 

Some language research suggests that up to 70% of communication occurs through nonverbal modalities, making nonverbal communication a critical social skill to target for children with autism.  Below are some activities to practice nonverbal communication. 

  • Follow My Eyes/Face to the Prize. (Gutstein, S. E. & Sheely, R. K., 2002) Hide 3-5 desirable objects (such as stickers or snacks) around the room or house.  Use only your eyes & facial expressions to provide information on the location of the objects.  
  • Simon Does.  This is a variant of Simon Says.  In this game, direct your child to watch & do what you do, and ignore what you say.   
  • Charades. You can print pictures from your computer using clipart, draw pictures, or write down words on pieces of paper.  Each person will take turns selecting a piece of paper and acting out what is on the paper using their facial expression, arms, and bodies. For younger children, start with animals.  For older children, you can think about emotion words.

Children with autism often have difficulty initiating and maintaining conversation topics.  Here are some activities that you can do to promote conversations

  • Candy Game. This is a Seaver Autism Center favorite.  This game is played with any multi-colored food, such as M&M’s, fruit snacks, or Fruit Loops.  Prior to playing write out specific prompts for each color.  For example, red: tell us one thing you learned today, yellow: tell us one thing you would like to do this summer.  Each person will close his/her eyes and pick one food item.  After they share something based on the color they have chosen, they get to eat the food item.  As the activity is mastered you can encourage family members to ask questions or make comments. 
  • Conversation Ball Game. You can purchase a thumball such as this or get a medium sized ball and write down different topics/questions on it.  You throw the ball to someone and they respond to the question or topic where their thumb lands.  A variation of this is conversation dice. Again you can purchase conversation dice or make your own using a tissue box and markers. 
  • Conversation Jenga.  Write down questions on each jenga piece.  As you play jenga, players have to answer the question written on the piece that they remove. 
  • Phone Calls and Face Time.  During this time of social distancing making phone calls and having face time chats with friends and relatives is critical.  Before making a call you can role play with your child and identify some conversation starters and topics that they might discuss given the other person’s interests.

Theory of Mind (ToM) or perspective taking is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Deficits in theory of mind is a core feature of autism.  Below are some activities to work on theory of mind. 

  • Movies without Words. Watch an unfamiliar television show or movie clip.  First watch the clip on mute.  Encourage your child to think about what is happening in the clip, the characters’ facial expressions and body language to determine the story line.  Then unmute the clip and rewatch it to see how accurate you were and what you missed.  Hint, shows like Mr. Bean and I Love Lucy are great as the actors are very animated.
  • Books.  For younger children, you can pause while reading a book and ask them to identify the character’s feelings.  Encourage them to look at the character’s facial expression and body language.  Once they have identified the character’s feelings you can ask them what the character is thinking.  If they get stuck you can prompt them by saying “What would you be thinking if you were that character in that situation?”

Many of these activities have been adapted from the Seaver NETT (Nonverbal communication, Emotion recognition, and Theory of mind Training) Curriculum:
Soorya, L.V., Siper, P.M., Beck, T., Soffes, S., Halpern, D., Gorenstein, M., Kolevzon, A., Buxbaum, J., Wang, A.T. (2015). Randomized comparative trial of a social cognitive skills group for children with autism spectrum disorder. JAACAP, 54(3), 208-216.

Resources and Activities for Teens and Adults with Autism
For teens and adults with autism, the COVID-19 pandemic can come with mixed emotions. There might be an increase in anxiety for those following the news or dealing with a change in routine. There could also be some relief that everyone is being asked to not leave their home and not socialize.

We have created resources to help teens and adults stay busy and maintain their physical and mental health during this uncertain time.

Social Stories about COVID-19

Coronavirus Social Story, Little Puddins The Autism Educator

My Story about Pandemics and the Coronavirus, Carol Gray

Autism and Coronavirus: Helping Students Understand, Linda Hodgdon Use Visual Strategies for Autism

Behavior Management

15 Behavior Strategies for Children on the Autism Spectrum, International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards

Tips for Managing Challenging Behaviors, IncludeNYC

Challenging Behaviors Toolkit, Autism Speaks


Best Apps for Kids with Autism, Common Sense Education

Specialized Instruction and Student Supports Resources, NYC DOE

Best Autism Apps for kids on iPad, iPhone and Android in 2020, Autism Parenting Magazine

Family Going Crazy These Apps, Websites, and Games Can Help, Wall Street Journal

Education Companies Offering Free Subscriptions

Visual Supports

Visual Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorders, Autism Speaks

Visual Schedules: A Practical Guide for Families, Katherine Havlik

Sensory Related Resources

How to Create a Sensory Room for Your Autistic Child, Very Well Health

Sensory Play! 101 Sensory Activities for Kids With Autism, Meraki Lane

Cultural Resources and Virtual Field Trips

At Home Activities, Museum Arts Cultural Access Consortium

Recursos adicionales en español

Español COVID-19 Guía

Español COVID-19 Síntomas