Early Pandemic Experiences of Autistic Adults: Predictors of Psychological Distress

The SPARK Consortium

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives around the world. Autistic adults are at higher risk for co-occurring medical and psychiatric conditions and may be more prone to difficulties adapting to pandemic-related changes and social distancing mandates and coping with ongoing uncertainties. On the other hand, the pandemic may lead to greater understanding and acceptance of accommodations in the broader community that may facilitate supports for autistic adults beyond the pandemic. To learn more about their early pandemic experiences, online surveys were sent to independent adults enrolled in the Simons Powering Autism Research Knowledge (SPARK). The first survey was open from March 30 to April 19, 2020; a follow-up survey sent to original responders was open from May 27 to June 6, yielding 396 participants with data for both surveys. We found that adults who were female, younger, had prior diagnoses of a mental health condition, personal COVID-19 experience (i.e., knowing someone who had symptoms or tested positive) or less frequent hope for the future reported the greatest negative impacts. Decrease in feelings of hopefulness over time predicted greater psychological distress at T2, accounting for T1 impact and distress levels and increases in total COVID-19 impact. Less perceived benefit of online services also predicted later distress. Although there tends to be a focus on coping with negative effects of the pandemic, mental health providers may consider approaches that focus on positives, such as fostering hope and understanding factors that facilitate benefit from online services. Lay Summary: Autistic adults may be at risk for psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. The current study suggests that autistic adults who were younger, female, had a mental health diagnosis before the pandemic and knew someone who showed symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19 reported more areas negatively impacted by COVID-19 and greater difficulty coping with those effects. Decreases in hope over time were associated with greater psychological distress. Less perceived benefit from online services also predicted distress 2 months later. These results suggest important areas to further explore as we develop supports for autistic adults during the pandemic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1209-1219
Number of pages11
JournalAutism Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • adults
  • co-morbid conditions
  • gender/female ASD
  • hope
  • loneliness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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