Guest Blog Post: Tips for Kids with Special Needs During COVID-19 Outbreak


As a public health practitioner, I know how important it is to abide by the policies and recommendations laid out by our public health institutions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. But as a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, I know how especially hard it will be for my patients with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, and for their families and caregivers during this uncertain time.

Social distancing, or minimizing social contact to prevent the spread of the virus, is a necessary public health precaution. But without access to schools, therapies, and public parks, and reliable routines, entertaining and keeping our children occupied will be challenging. Even though children appear to be at low risk of serious illness from COVID-19, they can still be infected and spread the virus to people around them, who are at risk of more serious disease (such as grandparents). It is our responsibility to stop the spread of the virus to protect them. 

We’ve come up with some tips to help your family navigate this challenging time. Although these tips are designed with children with special needs in mind, you may find that these are useful considerations for all children.

  • Just like you, your child is likely feeling that things are out of their control. Whenever possible, offer your child choices. Make sure to offer choices that you are willing and able to follow through with, and when they make a choice praise them for making the right choice (regardless of what they choose). The choices can be simple: Do you want a banana or an orange? Let the child choose their bedtime book and pajamas. Simple choices like this give your child a sense of independence and control over their life.


  • With your child spending more time at home, now is a good time to make sure your childproofing is adequate. Get down on your child’s level and search for any possible hazards, such as things that can fall off a shelf, uncovered outlets, or small items that can be swallowed. Go through toy bins and make sure there are no loose batteries. We all are taking extra precautions to sanitize and clean our homes, but remember many cleaning products are enticing for children. Make sure to keep items, such as hand sanitizer and cleaning solution, out of reach/locked away from your children. As our health care system aims to meet the needs for patients with COVID-19, we can do our part to prevent avoidable injuries.


  • All children benefit from structure and routine, but changing schedules and circumstances can be especially challenging for children with special needs. Try to keep your child’s schedule as consistent as possible, especially nap and bedtimes. Whenever you can, tell your child the plan for each day. Use a visual chart that shows them a general plan for the day, including any planned activities and meals. This can help them know what to expect. 


  • Incorporate the use of timers and countdowns when trying to move to a new task that your child may not like as much. For example “5 more minutes until we sit at the table for dinner.” The more time a child has to prepare for the transition to a non-preferred activity, the better. 


  • If your child usually receives therapies (such as speech, occupational, or physical therapy), ask your child’s therapist to provide extra information on what you can work on at home during this time. Your child’s therapist may be able to share some exercises, handouts, or homework assignments so that your child doesn’t miss out if therapy sessions are cancelled. Some therapists are also using video-conferencing technology to keep therapy sessions on schedule, so ask your service coordinator if this is an option.


  • For children with different sensory needs, it can be challenging to stay indoors, and your child may need more sensory stimuli than usual. You can try to use household items to make a sensory bin. Try hiding small toys in a bucket of rice, dried pasta, or beans and letting your child find them. 


  • Incorporating some “heavy work” inside the house can be particularly beneficial for children with a lot of energy. Ask them to help you move some furniture or a box filled with books around, pick up a bag of rice, or give them a resistance band to stretch.


  • You can also help your child get out some excess energy by setting up an obstacle course. Use pillows, couch cushions, and household objects that your child must navigate.


  • Many children love repetition. Even though you might get bored of an activity, if your child wants to hear “Baby Shark” again, it’s an activity to keep them busy. 


  • If your child really likes bath time, you can bathe your child twice a day (with good supervision, of course). On warm days, you can let your child play with water outdoors. Poke some holes in a water bottle and let your child observe how the water comes out. You can incorporate ice cubes with water play and practice “painting” with them. 


  • Use this extra time at home to practice life skills that you may not be able to do on a busy school/workday. For example you may let a child choose their outfit and work on getting dressed without as much help from you. It’s okay if the outfit doesn’t match, especially because they will be at home! 


  • Unless otherwise advised, try to get outside and get some fresh air. If you have a patio or backyard, your child should be able to go outdoors without interacting with other people. If not, you can take a walk around the block or your neighborhood, especially during quieter times (mornings) when there are fewer people outside. Young children may enjoy looking at birds and other wildlife, or collecting rocks, leaves, and flowers. 


  • Many kids love music. Have a dance party or a parade around the house, and let them make music with household items (such as pots and spoons).


  • Just because you are trying to keep friends and loved ones safe by keeping your distance, doesn’t mean you can’t let your child see them virtually. Now is a great time to use video-chat technology to see family members. 


  • You can use this time to work on identifying emotions and body parts. You can use a mirror or photos on your phone to name emotions. For older children, ask them to make a face that matches the different emotions you name (happy, silly, angry). You can practice naming body parts and pointing to each one on your child and then on you.


  • Even if your child no longer wants to hear you read the same book again, try using the book in a different way. See if your child can point to different pictures. Ask your child to copy the facial expressions of a character in the book. For children with more advanced verbal skills, have your child tell you a story by looking at the pictures, or ask them about how the characters in the story are feeling.


  • Involve your kids in cooking and preparing meals. They can help use utensils to stir (a fine motor activity), or they can use their hands to help mash potatoes or mix a salad (a sensory experience).


  • Kids love imitating clean-up. Have your child participate in cleaning up after meals or a play activity. Rinsing utensils in soapy water in a basin can be fun.


  • Don’t forget to make some time for self-care. This can be particularly challenging if your normal ways to relax (such as in a gym, yoga studio, or salon) are closed. Many fitness classes are making their content available online, and your child might even enjoy following along with a dance or yoga routine. Give yourself permission to let your child relax, as well. You don’t have to make every minute that your child is home into a learning opportunity. I even give you permission to relax restrictions that you might otherwise have on using screen time to keep your child occupied (although try to limit screen time in the 60 minutes before bed). If you are calm, your child is also more likely to stay calm. 

We hope these tips help you get started and give you some ideas about things to do to keep your child occupied and safe. Even as we try to maintain our distance from one another, remember that we are all in this together. 

Kate Wallis, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a researcher in the Center for Autism Research. These tips were prepared with help from Shruti Mittal, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Atrium Health Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics of the Carolinas. Follow Dr. Wallis on Twitter at @kateewallis and Dr. Mittal at @DrMittalDBP.