Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Disproportionately Impacted BIPOC and Women With Autism

Public health measures prompted by the pandemic have brought to light a number of systemic issues faced by BIPOC and women within the autistic community.

Students with disabilities and their supporters demonstrate against virtual schooling on September 10, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Getty Images
Students with disabilities and their supporters demonstrate against virtual schooling on September 10, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Getty Images

Over the course of the last two years, the pandemic is believed to have exacerbated pre-existing challenges linked to the condition — disproportionately impacting certain groups, like BIPOC children and women.

The shuttering of more than 124,000 private and public schools in the U.S. in March of 2020 affected more than 55 million students in the country, according to Education Week. For young people living with autism, experts indicate that virtual schooling may have yielded significant obstacles, such as limited access to specialists and resources, and diminished opportunities for regular socialization — all factors that potentially led to a recent spike in autism regression.

For parents, picking up on signs of autism also grew more difficult throughout the pandemic, as they were unable to observe their children in usual, age-appropriate settings and thus, obtain diagnoses and intervene accordingly. 

The effects of the pandemic on diagnosis and treatment have been even more severe for BIPOC children and their families: A study from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that Black children with autism are more than five times more likely to be misdiagnosed with behavior disorders, more likely to receive delayed diagnosis from doctors, and are more likely to be profiled, abused and harassed by police officers who are not trained in disability or sensitivity training.

Some BIPOC parents who were not able to work remotely as essential workers also struggled to support their children with autism as they transitioned to online learning, according to Dr. Adrian Jacques Ambrose via Psychology Today.

One study led by the NIH analyzing the impact of the pandemic on BIPOC and low-income populations shows that families with a child living with autism witnessed an increase in sleep issues and behavioral problems, in addition to increased conflict between children and adults and the use of more severe disciplinary methods.

Additionally, some studies suggest that girls and women with autism are less likely to be diagnosed with the condition than men. This could be because some women are able to mimic neurotypical behaviors more effectively than men, so the condition goes undetected and thus, untreated.

Researchers from the National Library of Medicine say women with autism often “suffer in silence” because they “don’t meet the standard criteria for autism that has been historically defined by how autistic males act and think.”

Despite this, the last two years may have brought upon positive change for some folks with autism. For instance, a number of people living with the condition have observed that they have unconsciously been “masking” their symptoms throughout their lives to conform to societal norms.

In a study published in “Molecular Autism,” researchers revealed that for adults with autism, the pandemic brought relief from certain stressors like “sensory overload” and ultimately led to an “increase in solidarity.”

Among BIPOC families, one upside surfaced: 93% of those surveyed said the duration of “quality time” with their kids rose during the pandemic.