COVID-19 & The Special Needs Community

Hey everyone! I hope everyone had an enjoyable and safe summer. As I’d discussed earlier in my Pandemic Precautions post, we’ve spent the last year and a half taking many actions to ensure that Anjali isn’t at a high risk for COVID-19 due to her behavioral tendencies naturally not following all the recommended precautions. Reading that post made me think about how the general population of special needs individuals are dealing with the pandemic, and if this community is more susceptible to COVID-19. I found some interesting results when researching this topic, so let’s dive right in! 

I want to start off by making it clear to everyone, and clarifying for any reader who may need to know this, that it is important to note that individuals with ASD are NOT “at higher risk for becoming infected with or having severe illness from novel coronavirus (COVID-19)” (CDC). In other words, the diagnosis of ASD, Aspergers, or any other behavioral conditions in itself is not something that puts your immune system at a relatively higher risk for COVID-19. Only individuals in these groups that also happen to have pre-existing health conditions that weaken the organs that the virus attacks are at relatively higher risk, and it is important for any family member of a special needs individual who may fall in this group to be conscious about this fact. 

With that out of the way, let’s look at how patterns of social interactions during the pandemic have increased the rate of individuals in the special needs community contracting COVID-19. A study from Drexel University showed that adults with Autism “receive services from outside caregivers and have had avoidable hospitalizations compared to the [parts of the] population without mental health conditions.” Indeed, this added risk is something that even we have contemplated in Anjali’s lifestyle. As is the case for many special needs children, Anjali has ABA therapists visit us on nearly a daily basis, and this necessary part of the lifestyle for individuals with Autism can also serve as a catalyst for spreading COVID-19 in this population group. It is also important to note that precautions that need to be followed for the pandemic can be quite disruptive of the preferences for individuals with Autism. “Physical distancing, restrictions on activities, new telework arrangements, and the shift to virtual learning can cause significant disruptions to daily routines, changing an individual’s physical and social settings. Each of these changes can create challenges for individuals with autism and their families” is how the NIMH perfectly describes this factor. The results of these disruptive precautions can be one of two things: added distress upon the Autistic individual in an already confusing time period or inability for this individual to follow the necessary precautions. This applies to Anjali as well, since I often wonder how well she has acclimated to the new COVID safety protocols at her in-person classes in school, and whether this has been an uncomfortable adjustment period for her, since she is a child that has sensory needs of touching the objects around her.

Link to the research paper conducted by A.J. Drexel Autism Institute: https://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/XY59J4MSVATMP9IGRZIK/full

 

Well what can be done about this? The top priority should be the safety of special needs individuals in the pandemic. Therefore, precautions should still be followed at all costs, even if it means cutting out somewhat important interactions with outside caregivers during this pandemic time period or guiding the autistic individual through an awkward acclimation period with COVID-19 protocols. However, if something simply can’t be cut out of the lifestyle of a special needs individual’s lifestyle, then the second best option is to ensure that all variables regarding that factor are monitored and controlled. An example of this may be daily in-person therapy sessions being done with a mask on, regular testing of all parties involved on a monthly or weekly basis, and cancelling sessions if anyone develops symptoms. Hope this serves as some food for thought for now, and stay safe everyone! 

FBLA Disability Community Service Project

Hey everyone! A group of friends at my school started an initiative called Project CARE, which is a venture that is a part of the local Future Business Leaders of America (F.B.L.A.) chapter, to promote inclusiveness for kids with disabilities. The A in CARE is for advocacy, and part of those efforts was informing the public of the difficulties these kids go through every day and how that’s been magnified by COVID. Here’s a conclusive report of their project, that I beleive will be quite interesting for all of you to read:

Disability Communication Amid the Pandemic

The pandemic has brought on a sudden surge of mask use, making it harder and harder for the disabled community to communicate with others.

The problem

Ever since Covid-19, we’ve all seen it. Masks are everywhere. Stepping foot into a grocery store means a crowd of masks at every aisle and turn. Or, even a walk to a park means loads of people with the bottom half of their face completely covered.

Even though this might not seem like a problem at all, the disabled community has by far suffered immensely from masks. Don’t get me wrong. Masks are undeniably one of the most valuable resources we have to avoid the deadly virus. Yet at the same time, the blockage of facial expressions and visual cues has led to a lasting impact on effective communication for the disabled.

The first problem that comes with communicating amid the pandemic is how much people rely on actual movements to read what others are saying. According to cbc, about 70% of American Sign Language (ASL) involves facial expressions and body movements, whereas the other 30% are really from the actual hand signs themselves.[1] Then, there’s the struggle with the muffled talking too. A study by the Canadian Hearing Services shows that masks can make a person’s voice a whooping 25 to 30% softer, increasing the struggle further for those that are hard of hearing.[1] And even after all of that, there are other factors too, like having your mask bands being tangled up in hearing aids, which adds up to headaches and dizziness.[2] But how many people does this actually impact? According to the World Health Organization, over 460 million people worldwide have a disability that has to do with a hearing condition.[2] 

The solution

Yet at the end of the day, the future looks bright. The exponential success and earnings of innovative masking products are leaving companies and entrepreneurs scrambling to be the next star product. 

And that’s exactly what ClearMask has done.[3] Created and found by Ms.Dittmar, a deaf woman herself, she’s relied on expressions, lip-reading, and facial clues to communicate for her whole life. After being put in a room with a bundle of surgeons with masks on and no way to communicate with them, her frustration motivated her to start ClearMask. That was over two years ago.

Fast forward to April of 2020, and the company has already sold 12 million masks. Having only operated for half a year, their product has also been the first transparent mask to be FDA approved and widely sought out by big media outlets like Wall Street Journal and NBC News.[4][5]

And the gap between those two years and officially launching in April of this year? ClearMask has been launching prototypes, and discussing and receiving feedback from those both in the scientific and disability community to create a product that most reflects and supports the users. The result was worth it. In speech language pathologist Julia Lipowski’s words,”The ClearMask has been so helpful when working with my apraxic patients, deaf and hard of hearing patients, and when performing oral mechanism exams.” 

Overall, the whole Corona thing has been a major setback for all of us, but especially those with disabilities. Looking towards ClearMask, this is just one in the hundreds of ideas and products that have been released because of Covid, bettering and increasing hope in every single soul of the disability community. 

Sources

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/masks-and-barriers-communicating-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-1.5579166

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/aug/20/deaf-people-mask-wearing-lipreading

[3] https://www.theclearmask.com/

[4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-transparent-face-mask-takes-off-amid-covid-19-11604182472

[5] https://youtu.be/nCwCYIpUm6A?t=268

Online Learning

Hello everyone! Hopefully everyone is staying safe and indoors during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Due to this situation, a lot of kids around the world have had their definition of school change. For a highschooler like me, this means live video call lectures, using online platforms to submit assignments, and having every aspect of school go digital. If such a drastic change is made for someone like me, what does online learning mean for a special needs child? How has Anjali’s learning through school changed while at home? Let’s dive into these questions.

Here’s another article about the topic of online learning for special needs students. The Touro College blog analyzes the feasibility of online learning for such students. Picture credit and article link: http://blogs.onlineeducation.touro.edu/5-ways-online-learning-can-benefit-special-needs-learners/

In my previous post, titled Pandemic Precautions, I covered the educational routine that we have maintained for Anjali while she is home. However, this did not cover what activities the school has planned for Anjali during the shelter-in-place. A few weeks after I put up that post, schools in our area officially switched to online learning for the rest of the year. This prompted Anjali’s teacher to create a comprehensive lesson plan for all the students in Anjali’s class. This involves sending out multiple reading platforms and games to be completed by the child with parental help, regularly sending out video lessons, and maintaining communication with parents in order to keep track of the progress each student is making during this time period. Our school district even provided us with an iPad for Anjali’s learning during this time period! I had also mentioned briefly in my last post that we are voluntarily continuing a few of the ABA, speech, and occupational therapy activities with Anjali, such as making puzzles. Anjali’s therapists have started doing weekly live calls where they conduct activities and check in with the progress of each child. Overall, we believe that both the school and therapists have done a comprehensive job when it comes to maximizing learning for Anjali, but this new routine also requires effort from our ends to make sure online-learning is sufficient for Anjali’s development.

Anjali has been using Khan Academy as a resource, since it was reccomended by her school. Such free resources can be used by parents to mantain learning of students while at home. Photo credit: https://keeplearning.khanacademy.org/

Clearly, Anjali is benefitting from a robust online learning plan implemented by her school and therapists. While thinking about this topic, I realized most special needs children across the country may not have access to such amenities, as I have explained in prior posts such as State Services. What can a parent of a special needs child in that position do? Clearly maintaining an educational routine during this time period is important for all special needs children, since not having any learning for the remaining 3 months of the school year would prove to be disastrous for overall development of any special needs child. In my opinion, the only route a parent can take to maintain learning for their special needs child is setting up their own learning schedule for the child, if the ones provided by school and therapists prove to be inadequate. Many free tools are available for parents when it comes to tutoring special needs children at home, such as Khan Academy and other platforms (no such platform has sponsored this post). Overall, it is clear that during the lockdown many parents with special needs children will have to put in extra effort towards maintaining study routines for their kids, and keeping up with the online-learning provided by schools and therapists. 

Pandemic Precautions

Hello everyone! This post will be regarding perhaps the biggest news topic of the year. Yes, I am talking about the Coronavirus pandemic. More specifically, I’ll cover what our family is doing to keep Anjali and everyone else safe. Along with this, we will also dive into what our future outlook should be regarding this viral pandemic.

DO THE FIVE: [wash hands, cough into elbows, don’t touch your face, stay more than 3 feet apart, and stay home if you feel sick]” are the major tips from the World Health Organization. Of course, the recommendation of keeping three feet space is difficult to follow when parenting a special needs child (we are still trying our best though). Besides that, our family is following all these tips in order to maintain hygiene and keep Anjali safe. Touching one’s face is a problem that not only Anjali but any special needs child with sensory needs faces. Instead of her chin, stress relief rubber items always serves a good substitute for Anjali to apply pressure on with her hands. We have also limited the times Anjali leaves home, but not at the cost of her much needed exercise routine. Anjali is still taken for bicycle rides around the neighborhood, but her visits to marketplaces have been stopped. Due to this outbreak, Anjali’s ABA and speech therapy have been canceled for two weeks, along with her school. Not having this work-period badly hurts her daily routine. In order to keep Anjali focused, we have to conduct therapy and academic activities with her. These may involve solving puzzles or completing reading homework with her. These are greatly needed for her to release energy and remain focused during this two week period.

Washing hands, along with other great tips, are discussed in this Autism Speaks article about the impact of coronavirus on the special needs community.

Clearly, the pandemic has greatly changed Anjali’s and our lives, even if only for a temporary period. Due to such changes, many parents might panic about what the future holds regarding the impact of this virus. To those people, I have one word to say: relax. Try to understand your special needs child’s routine, and what parts are altered due to therapy and school cancellations. Try to continue those activities with the child, even though a professional is not there to do it with them. As for hygiene, the same rules apply to all of us. Follow instructions of public health officials, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and stay away from gatherings. Following these simple rules can keep not just the special needs child safe, but all individuals around us safe.