Autism and covid-19: A case series in a neurodevelopmental unit

Leslie Nollace, Cora Cravero, Alice Abbou, Brice Mazda-Walter, Alexandre Bleibtreu, Nathalie Pereirra, Myriam Sainte-Marie, David Cohen, Marianna Giannitelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Background: COVID-19 has become pandemic and can impact individuals with autism as well. Here, we report a case series admitted to a neurobehavioral unit dedicated to challenging behaviors in patients with autism. Methods: We describe 16 patients (mean age 20.8 years; range 12–43 years; 76% male) with autism hospitalized between March 2020 and mid-April 2020 for challenging behaviors, for which COVID-19 disease has been suspected and who needed both psychiatric and medical care. A close cooperation with the Infectious and Tropical Diseases Department was organized to limit viral spread and training sessions (e.g., hygiene, clinical COVID-19 monitoring, virus testing) were given to staff members. Results: Most patients had severe autism and severe/moderate intellectual disability. Eleven patients were already in the unit when it was hit by the pandemic, and five were admitted from the community. Based on a virus search via reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) or serology at the 2-month follow-up, we had 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The main COVID-19 symptoms included benign upper respiratory infection signs (N = 9, 81.8%), diarrhea (N = 7, 63.6%), fatigue (N = 7, 63.6%), and respiratory signs (N = 5, 45.5%), including one patient who needed oxygen therapy. Three patients remained asymptomatic and COVID-19-free (including two under immunosuppressive treatments). Among the symptomatic patients, five showed atypical behaviors that we understood as idiosyncratic manifestations (e.g., irrepressible licking behavior). On day 14, only one patient with respiratory dysfunction still had a positive RT-PCR SARS-CoV-2 test. Conclusions: Organizing a COVID+ unit for patients with autism is realistic and requires close collaboration with infectologists. We believe that this initiative should be promoted to limit both the spread of the virus and the ostracism of patients with autism and challenging behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2937
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Clinical Medicine
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Autism
  • COVID-19
  • Challenging behaviors
  • Intellectual disability


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