Understanding the Pandemic’s Effects on Children’s Mental Health and Behavior

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It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted children’s lives worldwide; however, surveys show that children with neurodevelopmental conditions and their families have been disproportionally negatively affected, experiencing more emotional and behavioral problems during this difficult time. Changes in familiar routines, disruptions in treatment services and supports, and online schooling issues combined to disproportionately stress autistic individuals and their families.

“Our team is eager to support our families throughout the pandemic,” said Duke Center for Autism psychologist Naomi Davis, Ph.D., an investigator on the center’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) study. “We remain incredibly grateful to those families who have participated in our research projects during the past year, despite the many added challenges associated with the pandemic. We have also been inspired by families’ commitment to partnering with our center to conduct research that will improve the lives of those on the spectrum.”

In keeping with the center’s mission to support families in the research community, the research team has been working to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on the experience of families of young children. Marika Coffman, Ph.D., psychologist at the Duke Center for Autism, is
leading a research investigation funded by the Autism Science Foundation to study whether autistic children who have been diagnosed with both autism and ADHD or both autism and anxiety are having more difficulty coping with the pandemic than children with autism alone.

In another study, funded by the NIH, the center’s investigators are reviewing survey data completed by parents of children participating in the research program. Surveys from two groups are included and compared: Families who enrolled in the study before the start of the pandemic and those who enrolled during the initial months of the pandemic. Parents responded to questions about their emotions, such as challenges they might be experiencing in their role as a parent and feeling overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities, as well as questions about experiences of their children and balancing parenting with other aspects of life. Initial review of the data shows that families of toddlers reported significantly more stress specific to parenting during the pandemic as compared to families of toddlers surveyed before the pandemic. This was especially true for parents of autistic toddlers. The team is studying this data further, to understand specifically how the pandemic affected young autistic children’s behaviors, interactions, and progress.

“We are committed to contributing to scientific understanding about how pandemic interruptions and disruption directly affect young children and their families,” said Coffman. “What we learn can help inform improvements to services and interventions to help autistic children build resilience.”

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