Your Autistic Child And The Flu


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This article is evidence-based, verified by Callista Chinenye Emecheta, MD.

It’s the flu season again. The flu (the popular term for influenza), is a respiratory disease that is very contagious and caused by the virus influenza type A or B. 

This time around, however, it’s not getting as much attention as it would have gotten otherwise. There is a new kid on the block — the Coronavirus which causes an apparently similar illness and which has more or less occupied a lot of the media space and attention.  

Though less exotic in comparison, the flu remains dangerous. Unfortunately, however, probably as a result of it being so common, it’s not taken as seriously as it should be, even though it has a far higher case fatality rate than the Coronavirus.  

This season’s flu has led to several thousands of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths including in children, with 47 states of the United States affected as CDC reports.   

While there has already been a peak in the season mostly due to the B/Victoria strain, as it happens, the reported surge in the A strain (H1N1) is predicted to likely give rise to a second rare peak in the year. CDC reports nearly 90 deaths so far in children, with the highest hospitalization rates amongst the elderly. 

Dealing with the flu is not fun for an adult and definitely less so for children. For children affected with autism, it takes on a whole picture. Children with neurologic illnesses are at a higher risk of falling sick from a flu infection compared to their counterparts according to CDC, and most of the time due to poor communication skills, you are left to second-guess if and when there is a problem with them. 

Depending on where your autistic child falls on the spectrum, there might be a varying degree of difficulty in their ability to communicate their symptoms and feelings. 

That notwithstanding, there are general symptoms to look out for and they include: 

  • Fever which may start suddenly 
  • Runny/ congested nose 
  • Cough which is usually dry 
  • Flushed skin 
  • Generalized weakness 

In addition to the above, your child may have diarrhea and vomiting which even though not directly caused by the flu, is sometimes associated with it.  

While there are basic underlying symptoms of the illness, behavioral changes in autistic children attesting to a possible illness may also be present. Also, every child is unique in their regard and may show these changes differently. 

Look out for any of the following in your child: 

  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns.  
  • Self-abusive behavior like headbanging which may point to a headache. 
  • Constantly rubbing a part of the face or pulling the ears especially if it’s out of character.  
  • Paradoxically, an apparent improvement in their behavior may be attributed to the “fever effect” in autism where autistic children have been noted to show transient improvements in cognitive and social skills which wane as the fever wears off. This phenomenon is yet to be fully understood. 

What Can You Do When Your Autistic Child Has The Flu?

Your child suddenly comes down with the classic features of respiratory illness and you are not sure if it’s just the common cold or the flu.  

One of the most prominent symptoms you’d likely be most worried about is the fever which is usually of sudden onset and high grade, sometimes with associated chills.  

While the common cold may be associated with fever, it is almost always present with the flu. Also, the flu is a lot of times accompanied by gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. 

Generally speaking, children on the autistic spectrum tend to have more resistance against pain and coupled with their difficulty in communication, it can be hard to tell just how serious the illness is. Whatever the case, the following strategies will help you care for your sick child. 

Next line of action  

Call the pediatrician 

Let the pediatrician know of your child’s symptoms and find out from them if they may be down with the flu in which case, a visit is necessary.  

Most autistic children might resist this as it represents a deviation from their normal routine. You may consider allaying their anxiety by letting them know what they should expect beforehand.  

This you can achieve using a visual schedule showing them the different steps to be taken on the way to and fro. 

Also, the required trips to the doctor and pharmacy might be a strain on your child. To ease this: 

Keep your child as comfortable and engaged as possible during the trip and in the waiting room. Go along with their favorite toys for example.  

In order to possibly reduce waiting time, try and schedule an early appointment with the doctor. Consider going with another adult who can keep your child engaged to allow you to freely relay all relevant information to the doctor.  

Also, in order to help reduce the “strangeness” of the illness and associated management, it may help to use visual aids like body charts to teach them about different body parts to possibly get them to show on the chart where they may be having pain or discomfort.  

Also, teach your child to swallow drugs using vitamins as a test so that they can get familiar with taking medications when ill. 

Managing the symptoms 

Some pediatricians opt for aggressive management of fever due to their worry about febrile seizures. This also helps alleviate headaches. 

Autistic children are more prone to dehydration due to inadequate fluid intake, and elevated body temperature during an illness increases the risk. Encourage your child to take as much fluid as possible. 

Diarrhea will usually have abated with the management of fever and adequate fluid intake. You may consider staying away from solid foods for a short while as they recover. Your pediatrician can help you recommend a plan which would supply your child with all the nutrients they need. 

To ease nasal congestion, saline nasal sprays or nasal bulbs for suction of mucus helps. Cool mist humidifiers placed in their rooms can also help.   

Antiviral medication may be helpful in reducing the duration and severity of illness. They, however, need to be commenced as soon as possible (within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms is ideal). Not only that but research has shown that it may also be effective in reducing the risk of complications such as pneumonia and otitis media. Ask your doctor about them if you are interested in your child. 

It can be heartbreaking to see your child struggle with illness. Whatever the cause, proper fever management increased fluid intake, and adequate bed rest are very beneficial towards recovery. 

Your Autistic Child And The Flu

Dr. Callista Chinenye Emecheta is a medical doctor, Writer, and Public Health enthusiast, whose love for writing gives her an opportunity to spread health awareness, reaching out to people across the globe and helping them live healthy and balanced lives.

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