Trajectories of internalizing symptoms among autistic and nonautistic youth during the COVID-19 pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic elicited increases in anxiety and depression in youth, and youth on the autism spectrum demonstrate elevations in such symptoms pre-pandemic. However, it is unclear whether autistic youth experienced similar increases in internalizing symptoms after the COVID-19 pandemic onset or whether decreases in these symptoms were present, as speculated in qualitative work. In the current study, longitudinal changes in anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic in autistic youth were assessed in comparison to nonautistic youth. A well-characterized sample of 51 autistic and 25 nonautistic youth (ageM = 12.8, range = 8.5-17.4 years, IQ > 70) and their parents completed the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS), a measure of internalizing symptoms, repeatedly, representing up to 7 measurement occasions from June to December 2020 (N ~ 419 occasions). Multilevel models were used to evaluate changes in internalizing symptoms over time. Internalizing symptoms did not differ between autistic and nonautistic youth in the summer of 2020. As reported by youth themselves, internalizing symptoms decreased in autistic youth, both overall and compared to nonautstic peers. This effect was driven by decreases in generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and depression symptoms in autistic youth. Reductions in generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and depression in autistic youth may be due to COVID-19 pandemic-specific differences in response to social, environmental, and contextual changes that unfolded in 2020. This highlights the importance of understanding unique protective and resilience factors that may be evident in autistic individuals in response to broad societal shifts such as those seen in response to COVID-19.

Keywords: adolescents; anxiety; co-morbid conditions; depression; longitudinal data analysis.

Everyone needed support during the pandemic, but families affected by autism needed special support. This included siblings. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital tried out an intervention around stress and anxiety reduction in siblings in 2020. Not only was it liked, it worked. It didn’t completely eliminate stress and anxiety, nothing would, but it did help siblings manage a little better. Can it work outside the pandemic? There are certainly other situations where siblings could use a little more support – listen to this week’s podcast to learn more.

On this week’s podcast, we conduct an interview with Michelle Hughes, PhD, epidemiologist with the CDC, who answers all of our questions about how many people have autism, how they are counted, what has changed since the last count and why the CDC are counting more kids than they were 10 years ago.

You can read more about her here:

Here is a link to the 8 year old counting study:

Here is the follow up to when they turned 16:

Parent-focused interventions have been designed to provide training and support to caregivers who are essential in achieving positive outcomes for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). In 2020, significant crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and continued racial tensions, profoundly impacted the livelihood of children with IDD and their families. Many ongoing efforts to address disparities among this population were halted temporarily and required further adaptations. Researchers adapted interventions and support to address the disparities impacting children with IDD and their families with limited guidance. We provide a descriptive case analysis of four parent-focused interventions that responded to the global crises to continue serving children with IDD and their families. The four distinct programs were based on applied behavior analysis and naturalistic, developmental-behavioral paradigms that were culturally adapted for families of young children with IDD from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. We present the qualitative reports on the challenges and benefits that arose with adapting the four parent-focused interventions for telehealth implementation. We focused specifically on adaptations made in recruitment and retention, instrumentation and measurement, research staff training, and intervention delivery. We synthesize our experience with challenges and solutions in adapting parent-focused interventions for racially/ethnically and socioeconomically diverse children with IDD and their families. We conclude with recommendations for researchers and practitioners on methods for adapting parent-focused interventions to address the significant health disparities that impact racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse children with IDD and their families.

Keywords: COVID-19; autism; intellectual disability; parent-focused interventions; practice; racial/ethnic diversity.

This week’s #ASFpodcast highlights a few articles from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders this week which examined the tolerability and efficacy of online diagnostic procedures and interventions, from the perspective of both parents and clinicians. They seem to work about the same, although there were some caveats. For many reasons, online and Telehealth options are here to stay, and more needs to be done to improve their accuracy, acceptability, feasibility and effectiveness. These early studies are promising though, and lead the way to even more improvements to help make them a viable option for families in the future. Listen to the podcast here.

This year’s first podcast dedicated to COVID issues explores both caregiver and clinician satisfaction with telehealth. New studies explore this satisfaction with assessment as well as psychiatric interventions. Also, as a follow up to the INSAR presentations on resiliency in mental health, a new study from Canada explains what may be at the core of this resiliency. Finally – why are some autistic people still not getting vaccinated? Listen to the podcast here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique challenges for families and caregivers, as well as for autism-focused clinicians, who are faced with providing a thorough and accurate evaluation of children’s specific needs and diagnoses in the absence of in-person assessment tools. The shift to telehealth assessments has challenged clinicians to reconsider approaches and assumptions that underlie the diagnostic assessment process, and to adopt new ways of individualizing standard assessments according to family and child needs. Mandates for physical distancing have uncovered deficiencies in diagnostic practices for suspected autism and have illuminated biases that have posed obstacles preventing children and families from receiving the services that they truly need. This Commentary outlines several considerations for improving diagnostic practices as we move forward from the current pandemic and continue to strive to build an adaptable, sustainable, equitable, and family-centered system of care. LAY SUMMARY: Physical distancing and the abrupt end to in-person services for many children on the autism spectrum has forced clinicians to examine the existing challenges with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnostic assessment and consider things they want to keep and things that should be changed in the years ahead. New approaches such as telehealth both alleviated and exacerbated existing disparities, and brought into stark focus the importance of equitable and timely access to family-centered care. This commentary suggests ways of improving clinical practices related to ASD assessment to continue along this path.

Keywords: assessment; autism; challenges; children; diagnosis; disparities; pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted autism research and services. Early career researchers (ECRs) are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic on job security and career development. The goal of this study was to capture the challenges ECRs are facing during the pandemic and the supports that are needed for career development and research. ECRs were invited to complete an online survey that focused on four major areas; the impact of COVID-19 on their research; changes in productivity due to COVID-19; changes to training due to COVID-19; and current mental health. 150 ECRs were eligible and provided sufficient data for inclusion. All but one ECRs reported their research had been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Reductions in productivity were reported by 85% of ECRs. The biggest impacts included recruitment of participants, increased needs at home and personal mental health. ECRs reported a 3-fold increase in burnout, as well as increased anxiety. ECR supports, such as funding, flexibility, and tenure extensions, are required to ensure ASD research does not suffer from a “lost generation” of researchers. LAY SUMMARY: The COVID-19 pandemic has had negative impacts on research around the world. Loss of productivity impedes autism research discoveries. However, researchers in the earliest phases of their career, specifically postdoctoral fellows through individuals in assistant professor (or equivalent) positions, are particularly vulnerable to long-lasting effects of pandemic-related disruptions which may limit their ability to continue as autism researchers. This survey highlights the needs of this group and identifies mechanisms by which these early career researchers may be supported in this time. This is critical to ensure the next generation of ASD researchers and clinician scientists continue on the path to advancing understanding of autism in the decades to come.

Keywords: COVID-19; autism research; early career researchers.

This week is a “bric-a-brac”: of topics. They include: 1. how COVID-19 is especially dangerous for people with neurodevelopmental disorders; 2. how certain genes associated with neurodevelopmental disorders can affect other body functions other than the brain (like the digestive system and kidney function and metabolism); and finally, 3. why parents think their autistic children are so great. No overall theme, just information we hope you can use. Listen to the podcast here.