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COVID-19 and Autism: The hurdles to overcome

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Peoria (WEEK) - The CDC estimates that 1 in 54 children have autism. For these kids and those with other special needs, access to learning services is vital, but with COVID-19 many of those offerings are stuck on pause.

For Brad Davis when it was announced that school and other programs would no longer continue in person this past spring, he immediately thought of his 6 year old son who has autism.

"Not only did the school based rigidness of his daily activities stop abruptly," said Davis, "but also the therapies he needed in order to continue to progress with his disability stopped abruptly as well so it was challenging."

Davis's son is one of approximately 8,000 children in Central Illinois expected to be living with Autism.

"Being with other kids and being able to see how they act in certain environments is absolutely crucial and the fact that that has all but gone away has been difficult." said Davis

For children with autism, virtual learning doesn't always click.

Danika McGandy is the Chief Operating Officer of GBC ABA, a therapy center for those with autism and special needs who have been working throughout the pandemic.

"Knowing that so many kids were going to be losing some of those opportunities to work on social skills, transitions and other school readiness skills we really started to consider if we could be able to offer that program safely this year." said McGandy

This fall for their ABA therapy program they were able to go back, but only at half capacity. The necessary measures in order to keep them safe.

Another challenge to overcome, personalizing education outside the building. The regional director at GBC ABA in Peoria, Mackenzie Laesch, said in a traditional school setting these kids often have IEP's or 504's. Specific programs that were hard to translate to the virtual platform.

"We wanted to be a resource for our families so we did offer some additional therapy hours where we were able to focus on those interfering behaviors." said Laesch, "So if a kiddo is struggling to sit through a lesson we were working on sitting for an extended period of time or looking for any way we could support them through that."

And it wasn't just the kids and families that needed help adjusting. Therapists could not go to a child's home due to COVID-19 worries.

"Working with all of our clinicians to navigate through any challenges that come up during tele-health. Like one challenge we've had of course is kids figure out they can just shut the lap top off and then they don't have to have therapy." Laesch, "So we've worked really closely with families to navigate that as well."

But a big concern with the pandemic has been a delay in diagnostic services.

Holly Swearingian, the nurse coordinator for The Autism Collective said even before COVID-19 wait lists were up to 18 months long. Even longer for those on Medicaid. They're certainly not any shorter now.

"The sooner that we get essential services and therapies in place and the sooner that we understand why a certain individual may needs the support that they do or how to provide that support the more higher their outcomes are going to be, the more they are going to be able to achieve in life, the more independent they're going to be." said Swearingian

For Brad Davis, and other parents he has spoken with, unfortunately the pause on therapies has lead to some regression.

"I have no hard data that shows that but you can just tell as a parent. Some of the things that you were getting really close to are all of the sudden far away now. It's the old one step forward two steps back thing you wanna avoid." said Davis

But he remains hopeful that with groups like The Autism Collective and Central Illinois Autism Association that more services will become available and kids like his son will have a bright future.

"It comes down to just be kind."

Kaitlin Pearson

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