Helping Individuals with Special Needs Cope with the After-effects of Covid Quarantines

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; COVID-19 Topics

[This column was published in the Lynn Daily Item on September 27, 2022.]                                                                    
After more than two years of living under the cloud of fear and uncertainty that accompanied the pandemic, most of us have been happy to get back into the world and get on with our lives – even as the threat of contracting Covid remains. 

Those of us who thought we would be “getting back to normal,” however, discovered that the new normal was not like the old normal. For example, many of us now prefer to work from home, have become fearful of crowds, and are dealing with residual “brain fog” after recovering from Covid.

Some of us have become more anxious and depressed and/or developed other mood disorders. 

This is particularly true for individuals with intellectual disability (ID), developmental disabilities (DD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), many of whom had preexisting diagnoses of anxiety disorder, depression, or other mood disorders before the pandemic began. For some members of this group, the quarantine period lasted a year, after which they returned to day programs in small groups with reduced staffing. Even more of these individuals experienced 18 months to two years of isolation before they attempted to return to their programs, former activities, and social groups.

Reentry for this population has been especially challenging because many of them have limited or no verbal communication and limited receptive skills. How do individuals with significant disabilities share their concerns or struggles? Sometimes they do this by engaging in problem behavior such as aggression, self-injurious behavior, outbursts or tantrums, non-compliance or disinterest in tasks or activities, and changes in sleep and/or eating habits. 

To address these behaviors, those of us who care for individuals with special needs should pay close attention and offer individualized assistance and support. This will make for a smoother reentry as they reacclimate to society which has not always been kind to them and has also been foreign for over two years. 

If a loved one or an individual in your care is having a difficult time readjusting to being out in the world, the following suggestions may be helpful:

• Make sure that returning to a day program or school is a gradual process with multiple reorientation visits that include visits with teachers/staff and peers.

• Monitor his or her leisure time. Is he/she spending more time alone? Less engaged with peers/activates? Wanting to sleep more? If so, encourage more      socialization. You might reintroduce a favorite activity such as going out to eat, bowling, or seeing a movie and invite others to attend.

• Pay attention to cues such as changes in body language that may include lack of eye contact, posturing, flat affect, angry or sad expression, or pacing. Also note their interactional style. Is there a lack of interest in conversation/engagement, increases in negative interactions, avoidance or disinterest in people/activities that he or she once enjoyed? If you notice any of these changes and if they cause interruptions to activities, you may need to adapt the environment to their “new” needs. Oftentimes, the adjustment to a new routine, particularly after a long period of isolation, can require many modifications both large and small. It is important to remember individuals’ past behavior at their programs. This can establish some baseline knowledge for those working with the individuals and help them know
where and when adjustments may be needed. Always keep in mind that transitions are difficult for everyone, and individuals with special needs are no different.

• Be empathetic! The last two plus years haven’t been easy on anyone. For individuals with cognitive disabilities, it has been an even more confusing and stressful time. Empathizing with the individuals you are supporting should be a priority.

•Be patient! No one has had a seamless transition back to our new normal. Be understanding of the additional struggles that individuals with ID, DD, and ASD may be having and don’t look for a quick fix. 

Justin Kelly, M.A., LMHC, was formerly May Institute’s Director of Clinical Services for Eastern Massachusetts Adult Services. 

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit