Mental Health Profiles of Autistic Children and Youth During the COVID-19 Pandemic

What is the research about?

The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health for children. Autistic children and youth in particular face specific challenges with mental health that affect quality of life. The research used advanced methods to group autistic children in different categories (subgroups) based on shared attributes and looked at their differences in mental health characteristics. The research also looked for elements linked to a child’s mental health including child, parent, and system factors that can be used to improve health outcomes.

What did the researchers do?

Researchers used data from 1,570 patients across Ontario, 265 which were from autistic children. Parents of autistic children completed surveys in May 2020 through December 2020 to measure mental health before and during the lockdown. Questions were asked about mood, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, irritability, inattention, and hyperactivity. Researchers looked at the differences between groups to find what may be a risk or a protective factor in the children’s mental health such as parent mental health, accessibility to services/supports, and resources.

What did the researchers find?

Children were categorized into mainly 2 groups: those with declining mental health and those who showed no changes in mental health. Out of the 230 children, most (141) showed changes in mental health whereas 89 were unchanged.

  1. Children that had a worsening mental health were more likely to report COVID related stress and parents with poor mental health. These families also experienced more loss of access to doctors, learning supports, and financial
  2. Older females faced challenges with financial stress and were more likely to access short term mental health services.
  3. A small number of children who had improved mental health also had parents with good mental health and financial security.

Take home message

For government officials/policy makers: More than half of autistic children are showing signs of decreasing mental health which is alarming. More support needs to be provided, not just for the individual but entire families. System wide interventions that will improve the mental health of autistic children include securing access to medical and educational services and interventions that protect food / housing security.

For parents: Your child’s mental health is connected to your own mental health. It’s important you also prioritize your mental health.  Try to speak with your healthcare provider to find opportunities that can improve your mental health whether that be going on walks, meditating or seeking other supports and interventions.

For healthcare providers: Be aware of the increasing trend in worsening mental health of autistic children and youth. Take an anticipatory guidance approach. Be conscious of parental mental health as this clearly affects the child’s mental health. Advocate for opportunities that support the entire family, especially those with financial insecurity. An entire community-wide approach that focuses on family wellness may be beneficial.

The full research article can be accessed at this link:

Reference (APA):

Charalampopoulou, M., Choi, E. J., Korczak, D. J., Cost, K. T., Crosbie, J., Birken, C. S., Charach, A., Monga, S., Kelley, E., Nicolson, R., Georgiades, S., Ayub, M., Schachar, R. J., Iaboni, A., & Anagnostou, E. (2022). Mental health profiles of autistic children and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Paediatrics & Child Health, 27(Supplement_1), S59–S65.