Improving learner outcomes

How has COVID-19 impacted our young people with ASD in school?

Catherine Hand

Author Catherine Hand

Date 25th Mar 2021


It’s been noted that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often experience changing routines as a major challenge, and the need for adaptation during COVID-19 pandemic may have brought huge problems to families with children and young people on the spectrum.

As a result of the pandemic, studies from across the world have consistently found that children with ASD have showed an increase in the frequency or intensity of challenging behaviour. Further to this, the majority of parents of children with autism reported a negative impact in emotional regulation. Unsurprisingly, those children that were unable to maintain routines had higher levels of anxiety than children that could maintain their routines.

You do not need a study to tell you that your young people with ASD have been exhibiting much more challenging behaviour as school has changed.  You are certainly not alone. Teachers everywhere are having to cope with more aggression, absconding and meltdowns from their ASD pupils, but, we need to think about where this is coming from: 

Parents may have been coping with the stress of job loss and financial worries, plus their own emotional wellbeing and that of their children. Families have been separated from sources of support such as grandparents, respite and social groups. Children have had much less physical space to access. For many, physical freedom and the opportunity to move is essential to staying in a calm state. The combination of an unpredictable day and a lack of practical and emotional support for the family creates the perfect storm for a child on the spectrum. It really is not surprising that we have all seen behaviour that is enormously difficult to deal with.

Of course, not everyone has the same experiences. Many of our young people with ASD continued accessing education, and a rare few have seen some remarkable side benefits. The experience of getting to and spending the day in school has become quieter. Everything from fewer cars on the road, a later start time for many and a quieter environment in school means some children have actually found school an easier environment to cope with. As a result, their anxiety has reduced and they have been able to show their adults some of what they are capable of achieving.

Whether your young people have struggled or thrived during lockdown, the return to school (while a positive thing) has been throwing up all sorts of problems. So, you felt like you were making progress with your ASD students and now you are back to square one. What can we do?

  • Talk to parents to find out what has changed and what has worked well at home. Can an adult at school spare ½ an hour for a cup of tea and a chat? Support the parents and you support the child.
  • Children on the spectrum are often unable to recognise or express what they are worried about. Pre-empt this, address issues of anxiety around the virus, reassure children what you are doing to keep them safe. A social story will work really well here.
  • It takes ASD pupils longer to learn the expectations of a new environment so keep things as much the same as possible pre lockdown routines – focus on what is familiar, avoid introducing anything new.
  • Reduce challenges and demands. If you have particular flash points in the day that cause stress, such as lining up for lunch, remove them for now, plan to build back up to this in baby steps.
  • It takes ASD pupils longer to learn the expectations of a new environment so keep things as much the same as possible pre lockdown routines – focus on what is familiar, avoid introducing anything new.
  • The pressure is on to 'catch up with lost learning', but for your ASD student ‘learning’ looks very different. Resist the pressure to dive back into formal lessons. Prioritise using positive emotional regulation strategies. Children will probably have to re-learn skills that they were previously getting to grips with, such as good listening, good sitting, turn- taking. Keep the academic stress off and concentrate on the basics, sensory diet, games, stories and fine motor skills etc.


About the author:

Catherine Hand has been a teacher for nearly 25 years and has taught children and young people with a wide range of needs and abilities from age 6 to 16. For the last 14 years Catherine has been leading the Outreach service at Addington Special School in Wokingham, and she is also an online tutor for the OLT Autism Spectrum Disorder Course.

Further support:

For further support, teachers and teaching professionals looking to develop their understanding of ASD and their practice, can learn more by enrolling on our Autism Spectrum Disorder course.

For further information, the Autism Education Trust website has videos for schools on helping to get ASD pupils settled in school again.

How Children with Autism are affected by COVID-19

Find out more about the studies done on the impact of Covid:




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