Increased Anxiety, Stress, and Other Mental Health Issues in an Isolated World - Autism Awareness
How to deal with distress, anxiety and despair for those with ASD during COVID

Increased Anxiety, Stress, and Other Mental Health Issues in an Isolated World

I am starting to see more mental health reporting in the news over the effects of social distancing and isolating at home. The current COVID-19 circumstances effect the autism community in ways that are unique in comparison with the rest of the population. I’ve been writing weekly on various aspects of life at home during COVID-19 for parents, educators and support personnel. This week, let’s explore some mental health and wellness issues.


I don’t think there is a person out there that doesn’t feel an increased level of anxiety over the health of loved ones, job loss, income reduction, working from home for the first time, having to learn new technology, and managing the needs of the family and working at the same time. Teachers have been under a lot of pressure to still provide educational programs for students with special needs but the aide support is not there. It is also assumed that everyone has online access – this is not the case.

Parents have their children home full time, most with no support at all. We’re having a mixed experience with it. Our daughter, Julia, is happier not having to go out and deal with the world and overall has a decreased level of anxiety. However, I’ve seen a new problem emerge with increased computer activity. She is starting to interact with people online on a story writing website.  If anyone criticizes her stories or leaves a comment she doesn’t like, she is perseverating over it. I’ve tried to make this a teachable moment and talk about online communication, but it’s been challenging because she is worried that her responses have not been the right ones or that there is something wrong with her writing. I’ve been helping her with responses and trying to give reassurance, but the anxiety is still coming in waves. I really like Judy Endow’s explanation on perseverative thoughts and why they happen.

Our son, Marc, has anxiety over not having outings and interaction with a lot of people. He was an avid concert goer and loved to be out socializing in groups. We have supplemented his day with online group classes with people he knows and likes, but I can see he has some anxiety with this mode of delivery. For example, he can’t look at the computer screen because he becomes overwhelmed seeing himself and all of his classmates at once. They often talk over each other too. The greatest success has been one on one tutoring.

I have a number of work related meetings and webinars every week through Zoom. Personally, I find them exhausting and they are spiking my anxiety. I did some research to find out why that might be and found an excellent article on the topic of Zoom. I am grateful to have as way to connect with people, but it is also a constant reminder of not being able to see someone in person. Nothing takes the place of face to face, human interaction.

The Absence of Touch

Physical distancing has taken away touch in our lives.  For those who don’t live with other people, they may not have touched anyone for weeks now. This got me to thinking about a conversation I had some years back with a clinician in the UK over touch rules in care facilities. My son needs daily touch for his well-being. If no touching were a rule, how long would he cope and how would this affect his well-being? And now here we are in this very situation world-wide. I found this article in the Globe and Mail to be most informative on why touch is so important. While the experience of touch varies widely for people on the spectrum, it is important to think about during these social distancing measures.

Adorable little toddler girl with rainbow

Down the Free E-Book Life at Home During COVID-19

None of us were prepared for the rapid changes that took place with the closing of community classes and programs. This ebook is ideal for helping ease that transition into isolation at home.

Increase in Sleep Disturbances

Most parents of children with autism are no strangers to sleep deprivation, but the COVID-19 situation has added some new dimensions to the problem. Some of the challenges are:

  • Disruptions in daily life without the usual time anchors of school, work, activities.
  • Lack of a schedule or an adjustment to the schedule.
  • Changes to rules and procedures. New things happen around COVID-19 daily. Every store has a different procedure and I find those change all the time.
  • Unknowns about the pandemic like when it will end, how it will end, what will happen to the economy or to funding for those with special needs.
  • Excessive screen time.
  • Increased family and work stress. I am working harder than ever for less pay and a precarious future. Having my children here all day while trying to work is stressful at times. I asked Julia to work in another room and she was back at my office door 15 minutes later citing loneliness. What am I to do?
  • Stress related fatigue from a constant state of worry. Watching the news or reading a newspaper makes me feel so down, yet I need to be informed to make the right decisions for my family and business.

A good night’s sleep is even more important during a pandemic because of its wide-ranging benefits for physical and mental health. Sleep strengthens our immune system, heightens brain function, enhances our mood and improves mental health. There are some excellent guidelines from the Sleep Foundation for sleeping well during COVID-19.


We are entering the middle stages of the pandemic which can be harder to cope with than the beginning or end stages. We’ve been in this for weeks now, not being able to seeing loved ones, no get togethers, no enrichment of our lives through the arts, sports and other recreational pursuits, no travel or planning for the future. Many of us have suffered the loss of a loved one, tried to cope with the stress of someone being ill, or are worried that someone we know or ourselves will get sick. Parents of children with autism constantly worry what will happen to their children if something happens to them; this situation has exacerbated those feelings.

Unemployment, wage cuts, layoffs or impending job loss has left us panicked about how we’ll support our family. Food shortages have been stressful. The world has shifted faster than we can adjust. The loss of our former lives can cause grief – we just don’t know if we’ll get our lives back and they may not be the same as they were. What will the new post-COVID world look like? It is normal to feel down or have mood swings.

How Can We Help Ourselves and Our Loved Ones?

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has some excellent tips on how to manage mental health challenges during this pandemic. They include:

  • Seek credible information from reliable sources.
  • Disconnect from electronics for a period of time every day. We have our TV off all day until 6 pm.
  • Meditate and create a relaxation plan.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Seek support from friends, family, your religious organization, mental health organizations.
  • Eat healthy.
  • Get proper rest and sleep (see sleep section of this post).
  • Decrease other stress in your life.

Set Small Goals

Every week, I try and set some small, simple, goals for myself. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. Here are some things I do:

  • Read several pages of a book every day.
  • Walk a few minutes longer each week.
  • Add a few repetitions to my weight workout.
  • Work at an online course that is purely for enjoyment (doing a History of Textiles one right now).
  • Try a new recipe.
  • Watch at least one documentary a week to learn something new.
  • Attend a webinar twice a month.
  • Work out online once a week with my skating group.
  • Reach out and contact someone who may be in need.
  • Clean or organize one thing a week (a drawer, a cupboard but never an entire room).

It’s important to look after yourself so that you can be there for the people that need you. On an airplane, the flight attendants always tell you to don your own oxygen mask before helping others. No one is immune to the effects that this pandemic has caused in our world. Be gentle and kind to yourself and the individuals you support. This situation will pass – it’s only a matter of time.

Mental Health Resources

Anxiety Canada

Canadian Mental Health Association

Caregiver Stress and Burnout

E-Mental Health

The Guide to Good Mental Health on the Autism Spectrum

Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum

A Practical Guide to Mental Health Problems in Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder – It’s not just their autism!




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