New study shows negative effect of COVID-19 school closures on autistic children

December 17, 2021
New study shows negative effect of COVID-19 school closures on autistic children

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, families across the country are coping with uncertainty and changes in routine caused by emergency school closures. A new study published in Frontiers in Education shows that shutdowns in school services have had serious consequences for children, particularly those with autism.

To compare the impact of school closures on autistic and non-autistic children, researchers sent out a survey to 250 parents of children aged 4 to 15 years old. The majority of participants (65%) were parents of autistic children, while 35% were parents of children without autism. All parents filled out a questionnaire about their children’s psychological experience during COVID, and parents of autistic children also completed a survey about autism-specific stressors, like behavioral concerns, therapy disruptions and hygiene issues.

The results showed that parents of children with autism were more than three times as likely to report negative changes in their child compared to parents of non-autistic children. Parents of autistic children were more likely to report that their child was affected by changes in routine, while parents of children without autism were more likely to report that their child was affected by social isolation.

The stress of school closures also led to an increase in certain behaviors among children with autism, including:

  • Stimming (66%)
  • “Meltdowns” (62%)
  • Aggression (46%)
  • Toileting issues (26%)

In fact, more than three-quarters of parents of autistic children (79%) said that their child’s therapies had been disrupted during the pandemic, and more than half (63%) said their child was regressing behaviorally. Parents were also concerned that their child was less prepared to return to school, falling behind in school and being left out of virtual social situations.

However, while there were negative changes in behavior, parents of children with autism reported that their children have been happier during the pandemic than parents of non-autistic children. The decrease in social demands and opportunity to stay home with loved ones could be contributing to this difference.

In total, these findings suggest that virtual school and therapy services may not be appropriate for children with autism. While researchers still don’t understand the long-term impact of school closures on autistic children, the current study shows the changes in routine and lack of socialization may lead to learning loss that could create negative outcomes later in life. Educators will need to address these challenges by offering children with autism opportunities to “make up” what they lost during virtual learning once they return to school in-person.

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