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Impact of COVID-19 on Children’s Social and Emotional Skills

June 30, 2021


As COVID-19 restrictions continue, here’s how to make use of resources in the comfort of your own home for developing your child’s social-emotional skills.

Impact of COVID-19 on Children’s Social and Emotional Skills

COVID-19 has impacted all children, but some children, including those on the spectrum, may have been affected more dramatically than others. 

Children with autism often find it hard to: 

  1. Recognize emotions, facial expressions, and other emotional cues like tone of voice and body language
  2. Understand and manage their feelings and emotional reactions 
  3. Understand and respond to other people’s emotions—they might lack, or seem to lack, perspective or empathy for others 
  4. Adapt to changes in their routine or social interactions 
  5. Manage overwhelming social interactions or environmental stressors

These combinations of traits make it difficult for some children with autism to acquire the social-emotional skills most of us take for granted. We know that social skills and emotional regulation strategies can help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) learn how to act in different social situations and manage their emotions. This is why social-emotional learning is one of the top forms of support advocated to families. 

We need to help children on the spectrum develop social-emotional skills and help them to adapt these skills appropriately for current times. COVID-19 has changed how we socialize and, for many (including neurotypical individuals), it’s increased stress levels significantly. So what can we do to help children with autism who are struggling in these unprecedented times?

Supporting social-emotional development amidst COVID-19 

Typically we focus on four main areas with social-emotional development in children with autism: play skills, conversation skills, problem-solving skills, and emotional skills. 

  • Play skills can be taking turns in a game or sharing a toy 
  • Conversation skills can be choosing what to talk about or what body language to use 
  • Emotional skills can be managing emotions and understanding how others feel 
  • Problem-solving skills can be dealing with conflict or making decisions in a social situation 
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With COVID-19, we’ve seen children with ASD impacted concerning the above areas. Masks, isolation, and social distancing make it more difficult for children to read social cues, body language, and emotions. Changes to routines, schedules, and environment have been difficult for many children, especially those who struggle with even the smallest routine changes. 

Children with ASD are getting less time to practice social skills and are exposed to more personal and environmental stressors during this pandemic. Many families have mentioned that parents, teachers, and support staff are also feeling the impact of COVID-19 and sometimes lose their patience.

So what can we do? Let’s take a family approach; how can we work on our emotions together? How can we practice social-emotional skills as a family or classroom? 

  • Use these changes to practice flexibility, adaptability, pushing through discomfort, and building resilience
  • Have discussions about how everyone in the family or classroom has had to adapt to certain changes and build each other up for the efforts
  • Use these same conversations to talk about how change is hard and takes time to get used to as we grow into a new way of doing things. Use this conversation to lead into questions like: “How this change helped us?” or “Why is it hard to change?” 
  • Continue participating in social-emotional groups; many of these groups are considered essential or have moved online
    • At Behaviour Matters, we see how beneficial these social-emotional learning groups and our sessions are during these difficult times
    • Support groups may look different, however, they are still available and needed more than ever
  • Use movies, books, games, mirrors, people-watching, and make-believe to continue working on body language, social cues, and emotional awareness. You can use these same resources to prompt perspective-taking in children; what might they be thinking or what might they be feeling? 
  • Build problem-solving abilities through our 3-1 problem-solving game—providing three solutions for one problem. We recommend using this in neutral situations every day to build problem-solving skills and prompt using it in stressful situations
  • Individual and family therapy are popular; they utilize a preventive approach to help children develop their coping and calming skills
    • Practice calming and coping skills every night before bed to strengthen your child’s coping abilities and send them to bed as calm as can be
  • Find virtual playgroups or outdoor activities or make use of small support bubbles

COVID-19 has stirred up social struggles and emotional reactions, but remember, social-emotional support is available and should be continued even though it looks different from the way we remember it. We know how stressful things are for everyone right now, don’t try to figure it out alone!

This article was featured in Issue 120 – Epilepsy: High Risk for ASD Kids

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