Autism, Anxiety and the Coronavirus


By Yenn Purkis

I saw a post on social media yesterday saying the COVID19 / coronavirus was a media beat up. I could understand where the poster was coming from as there has been some rather sensational reporting about the crisis but the virus is definitely not a beat-up. COVID19 is a real crisis and people are right to be concerned. I have been thinking about the impact of the virus on the autistic community and will unpack my thoughts here.

Autistic people tend to be more anxious than the general population and it is understandable that we are anxious about the virus. I have been worrying about its impact for a while. I think catastrophising is probably a more appropriate word. It is hard to know how anxious to be. Should I be buying supplies in case I am quarantined? Am I at risk of catching the virus? Are my friends and family at risk? Should I still travel interstate for speaking gigs? Will my speaking gigs be cancelled? Will the economy fail and will I lose my job as a result? I could go on for a while. I think the best advice I have – for others and myself – is to try and just worry about the issues at hand and deal with things on a day to day basis.

Another commentator suggested that COVID19 will be beneficial to autistic employees because it will result in lots of working from home which favours us. Thi is sort of correct but needs to be taken in context. Many jobs do not have capacity for remote working. And autistic people who are not employed are probably less likely to be hired in the current circumstances. As economies shrink, so too does the hiring of people from diverse backgrounds. In a smaller economy it is likely that autistic job seekers will be less likely to find work.

I have seen humorous memes about autistic people benefiting from self-isolating. This is amusing and probably true but many quarantine situations will involve being confined with other people. This could be a nightmare for autistic people. I am currently in a rehabilitation hospital and I have been running the quarantine scenario through my head a lot and I really don’t want to be confined to a building with the same people for weeks on end!

Another thing which people have been saying is that ‘I will be OK because I am not old or sick.’ A lot of the media about the virus has also focussed on this. I find this highly problematic. It is as if older and sick people don’t matter and the virus is not a concern because young and healthy people are not victims. My parents are in their seventies and I would be devastated if they caught the virus. It is not OK that the virus kills people that ‘aren’t me’.

Talking to children about the virus is a tricky thing. I have seen a few resources out there including one through Footprint Books. You don’t want to terrify them but you do want them to know things like the importance of hand hygiene and give some context to the media discussion fo COVID19. Autistic children may become very focussed on the crisis and be highly anxious. It is a fine balance, somewhere between feeding into their fears or at the other extreme telling them that there is nothing to worry about. It may be worth scheduling a time where the can ask parents any questions they have about the virus.

Panic buying is something which many of us find baffling. One of the issues with it is that it drives others to panic buy even if they don’t want to. For example if all the toilet paper is gone from the supermarket, someone who otherwise wouldn’t panic buy will grab any toilet paper if they see any because they know it will be gone soon.

I am actually very concerned about the COVID 19 crisis and struggling with my anxiety. I am worried about the hospital I am in being quarantined or repurposed leading to my early discharge, I am worried about the economy and my job being affected, especially as I have been on sick leave for the past five months. I am worried about people I love and care for contracting the virus. I am hoping a vaccine is developed soon but until then I just have to manage my worry. This is a very scary thing with the potential to disrupt society across the globe.

This article was originally published on Yenn Purkis’ website here.

2 replies on “Autism, Anxiety and the Coronavirus”
  1. says: Natalie

    I’m the type of Autistic Person who needs human contact to keep me just stimulated enough to not go crazy from understimulation. This whole social distancing thing would drive me insane at some point if it weren’t for FaceTime and other forms of video chat. I also was supposed to finish my senior art capstone and graduate this semester but all classes have been moved online which means it’s gonna be hard to finish everything for the art capstone. Plus with the constant talk about the virus both from family and from the media, my mind has fixated on it and spiraled so I’ve been having to do social media distancing to minimized the amount of contact my mind has with the topic. This whole thing sucks and I hope it ends soon.

  2. says: Fleur Capocci

    I’m from the UK. I have HFA and I teach children who have ASC or are highly anxious. You hit the nail on the head when you describe all of the things you are worrying about. We tend to get freaked out by the bigger picture and need to focus on details. I’ve become physically sick from the constant ‘what if’ scenarios from staff and children. Now I’m hoping to be quarantined just to get some peace and quiet. I’m lucky though because I will still be able to work from home and get paid. I won’t be able to see my children or my husband’s family until this runs its course which is terrifying, if I don’t remind myself that the future is simply ‘what if’ and not facts.

    What if the coronavirus wakes everyone up to be less selfish and care about others more? What if we find a simpler way of life that we will incorporate into society because its less stressful for everyone? I’m focusing on positive what ifs because they’re no less likely to come true. Wishing everyone calm and an opportunity to obsess / hyperfocus on something you love until this is over.

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