U-M Counseling and Psychological Services

During COVID-19 we are all facing a great deal of uncertainty and change. For many in the Autism community, disruptions caused by the pandemic may be particularly challenging. Students on the Autism Spectrum may be unnerved by changes in daily routine and environment, including adjustment to remote learning, and some may experience difficulty accessing needed services and accommodations. Additionally, those on the Autism Spectrum may be managing new social challenges as they learn new ways of interacting and communicating. Despite all of these challenges, we know students on the Autism Spectrum are resilient and possess many coping skills and unique strengths. The new normal of staying at home is a big change for most of us and takes some planning, preparation and commitment to be successful. We hope this page will provide strategies for successfully navigating this challenging time, and also remind students to utilize and strengthen skills you already possess or learn a few new ones.

  • Coping Strategies for Disrupted Personal and Study Routines
    • Inspired by written works of Brigid Rankowski / March 25, 2020 found HERE and Lydia Wayman / March 25, 2020 found HERE.
      Brigid is a disability advocate, educator and international speaker and author on autism spectrum disorders. Lydia is an autistic author, speaker, blogger and advocate from Pittsburgh.

      Coping strategies are things we can do that help us maintain or regain a calm emotional state when we may be feeling anxious, scared, worried, angry or any other heightened emotion. Coping strategies are even more important during times of uncertainty and they can be used preventatively to help reduce the intensity, should we experience heightened emotions.

    • Develop and Stick to a routine
      • With everything changing around us, we are still able to live some semblance of normalcy by sticking to our existing routines or schedules, while adapting them to the current situation. Try to get up at the same time, get dressed as usual, go to bed at the same time and complete any hygiene tasks as if it were a typical day. While it may be tempting to, say, not brush your hair or do chores when at home and not attending class in person, these small details help to eliminate some of the stress of unpredictability.
    • Manage your time
      • Determine what tasks and assignments you need to accomplish and when they are due. If necessary, contact your professors to make sure you are clear about due dates and what is most important. Break bigger tasks down into steps and schedule them into your days. Try to leave extra time slots open in case you get behind. This way, you have a plan in place for when things don’t go exactly as planned.
        A written schedule or visual routine is a good strategy for time management. You can use an app, a daily planner,or a simple checklist with tasks you need to complete for the day. Many people with Autism like to use visual cues to organize information, such as color-coding by task type or days for the week or using pictures alongside a written schedule.For example, you might shade your ‘break”times in blue or include a picture of a phone next to any scheduled calls.
        If you prefer a more flexible approach, you can break assignments and projects down by setting a goal for the end of each day. Then list the steps you’ll need to do to reach that goal.
    • Organize your workspace
      • Set up a workspace that works to your advantage. As tempting as it is to lounge in bed or in front of the TV with your laptop, this can make it harder to focus during the day and harder to relax at night. Consider your sensory needs—the type of lighting, noise level and seating that allows you to focus. Choose a place that allows for easy access to any paperwork, tools or other items you need without clutter. If you’re having a hard time remembering your new setup, try using trays or bins with clear labels (made using text, color-coding and/or visual cues).
        If your work involves frequent emails from different classes, consider setting up your inbox with subfolders and color-coded tags for each sender. You can organize computer documents and files in the same way.
    • Communicate with faculty, peers, and family
      • Now that learning is taking place remotely, you may be using new communication platforms. If you are having trouble navigating these platforms, contact your professor, IT, or a savvy peer/friend and ask if they can walk you through how to use the most important functions.
        Since in-person contact is not possible, you might see an increase in emails, phone calls and video conferences. Leave time for responding to these in your daily schedule. Some of these communication methods may be more difficult. Don’t be afraid to double-check your understanding following one-to-one emails or phone calls, especially if you were given instructions.
        During meetings, consider taking notes and writing down questions. If you agree to do or are assigned assignments during a call or meeting, you can write them down as a list of action items. Then, you can reach out to your professor or peers to clarify what you will be working on.
    • Attend to Social Needs
      • For many students who are on the Autism Spectrum, school can be socially draining, so home becomes a place of much-needed alone time. In this case, working from home could mean too much isolation. With social distancing in mind, you can find ways to stay connected to other people once your school day is over—play video games, invite friends to a long-distance movie night via Netflix Party or take a walk while staying at least six feet apart.
        Connect with your peers regularly using email, text, video messaging or social media. Make the effort to reach out to friends if you are feeling stressed.
    • Meet your sensory or stimulus Needs
      • While you’re at home, it is still very important to have access to activities to meet any sensory or stimulus needs you may have. If you have these types of needs, addressing them will help you maintain a calm, regulated emotional state, as well as providing sensory input to help you stay grounded, relaxed and focused. If you find the need for decreased sensory input, create a place in your own home where you can have a quiet, calming space which may include soft lighting, relaxed seating, appealing scents and sound blocking headphones.

        *Here are some suggestions for sensory inputs you can use to help regulate:

        - Look at engaging photos or watch a live feed from an aquarium or zoo
        - Use a chewable fidget, chew gum, or suck on a breath mint
        - Eat something spicy, sweet, bitter, salty, crunchy, or chewy
        - Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) videos on YouTube
        - Create deep pressure with a weighted blanket, cuddling a pet, or asking a loved one to squeeze you
        - Find as many interesting textures as you can in your house
        - Wear clothing that is fitted or gives feedback
        - Candles, essential oils, plug-ins. Some smells might push you to alertness (peppermint) while others can be relaxing (lavender)
        - Stress ball, grip strengthener, other squeezing fidget
        - Watch a familiar/comforting movie, or listen to a favorite song

        *(Adapted from Autism Society of Minnesota)

    • Respect your emotions
      • This is a stressful time and you may experience emotions such as sadness, anger, fear or frustration. Know that your emotions are valid, and many other people are also dealing with their own heightened emotions. You may find comfort in a more controlled environment with fewer stimuli or social challenges than you face when at school. A mixture of positive and negative emotions is normal.
        Many students on the Autism spectrum have strategies for avoiding becoming overwhelmed with emotion. In this new and uncertain situation, remember your own strategies to avoid a meltdown and take actions to avoid it.
    • Develop or revisit a crisis plan
      • Having a crisis plan may mean different things to different people. At its most basic level, this is a list of important information, including who to contact if you are in a crisis situation and what a crisis situation looks like to you. This plan may include emergency contact information, when to call doctors or other vital information to have in one place. Post a copy in your living space and carry a copy with you if you leave the house.
    • Exercise your mind and body
      • Stress takes a physical toll on your body and also depresses the immune system. If you are already physically active, try to find ways you can continue these routines at home. Look for free fitness routines online ( UM Rec Sports Virtual Fitness ) or see if your local gym is offering virtual classes. Keeping your mind active is also important as part of overall mental health. Instead of only watching a new TV series, try to add variety by picking up a book or listening to a podcast. Most public libraries have an online system that allows you to check out electronic books and audiobooks to use on your device from home.
    • Take care of your health
      • Taking care of your health at this time is so important not just for you, but also for others who you could unknowingly expose to the COVID-19 virus. Try to eat healthy meals, get enough rest, take medications as scheduled and if you do feel sick, stay at home. If you have a medical emergency, you should call 911. If you have questions and are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, please follow CDC guidelines. Also call your doctor’s office or emergency room before going for treatment.
    • Utilize professional supports
      • At this time, many mental health providers, case managers and specialists are still working but using different methods, such as virtual meetings or video calls. Call your providers to see how they can work with you during this time. Phone meetings may be harder, but prioritizing support right now can help you remember you are not alone. If you are part of an in-person support group, ask the leader if they can arrange a virtual meeting for those who want to join. Please remember that both CAPS and Services for Students With Disabilities (SSD) remain an option for you to get support.
    • Take a media break
      • It is very easy to get overwhelmed with the constant barrage of information online about the current pandemic. If you find yourself feeling anxious while reading the news or social media, try to take a break. You can schedule a set amount of time to catch up on the news to make it less likely you’ll be overwhelmed by it. Remember to also schedule time at the beginning or end of the day to care for yourself by doing something fun or relaxing, depending on your needs that day. Find more information on taking a media break HERE.
    • Plan for the future
      • One of the hardest things at this time is to think about the future with all of this uncertainty. Think positively about the future and the things you want to do when things improve. Is there a new skill or hobby you want to learn? Are there courses you can take to help you at work? Are there goals you want to achieve that you can work on while you are stuck at home? Make a plan to help you work toward bigger goals – it can help you try to stay positive.
    • Practice mindfulness
      • Mindfulness means being in the present moment with the activity you are doing. This can take the form of meditation, yoga, coloring or any other activity that helps you focus on the “here and now.” There are many free online videos (including one developed by CAPS HERE) and apps (including our very own Stressbusters App found HERE) you can use to explore different activities to see which ones work for you.

Additional Resources

- Services for Students with Disabilities : https://ssd.umich.edu/
- The Autism Response Team (888-AUTISM2) and 211 can help connect you with needed resources, including new ones being created.
- https://ausm.org/images/docs/PandemicGuideforASDAdults2020.pdf (Autism Society of Minnesota – Autism Support Coronavirus Pandemic Guide for Adults with Autism)
- https://www.autismspeaks.org/covid-19-information-and-resources-adults-s... (COVID-19 information and resources /AutismSpeaks)
- Autism Response Team at 888-AUTISM2 or help@autismspeaks.org. (Autism Speaks)
- https://www.autism-society.org/covid-mental-health-respite/ (Autism Society / various topics related to COVID-19)
- https://autismallianceofmichigan.org/project/minavigator/ (Autism Alliance of Michigan – Case management service for people with Autism)
- https://autisticadvocacy.org/ ( Autism Self Advocacy Network - “ nothing about us without us”)