Helping Individuals with Special Needs Stay Healthy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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

[The following column was published in The West Springfield Republican on 3/19/20.]

By Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA

As the number of people being diagnosed with the coronavirus in the United States continues to rise, those of us in the human services field are closely following the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We are also taking additional steps to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of the children, adolescents, and adults served by May Institute. 
An important first step is to take care of ourselves as well as the people who work for and with us to provide care and services to individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. In a school setting, this includes support staff and teachers.

Some people with disabilities require assistance from others with all aspects of life, including the activities of daily living (feeding, bathing, cleaning, etc.). This means caretakers are in very close contact with these individuals as they provide physical assistance. In a school setting, teachers and staff members also come into close contact with their students. It is crucial that these human service providers practice healthy habits to minimize the spread of germs. These habits include washing hands regularly and thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, and covering a cough/sneeze by doing it into one’s elbow. 

Of course, everyone – not just those of us who work with individuals with special needs – should wash their hands frequently, especially before eating, and avoid touching their faces as much as possible. If you have a child who has a difficult time with handwashing, consider using disinfectant wipes that are safe to use on skin. 

Another concern is the cleanliness of your surroundings. Be sure to clean often-touched items in your environment such as door handles, light switches, and phones. 

Some individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities engage in Pica (ingesting of nonedible objects) or mouthing objects, which puts them at risk of spreading and contacting germs more easily. If you care for a child who engages in Pica, or a baby who regularly puts things in his or her mouth, be sure to clean toys and other objects regularly, especially if other people may touch those items throughout the day.

You might also want to consider changing clothes when you change environments. For example, I work at a school and change my clothes immediately when I get home so that I can launder my work clothes. 

At this time, it is a good idea to minimize physical contact with others as much as possible, which means avoiding crowded areas and being around a lot of people. You may be practicing healthy habits, but you cannot guarantee that others are!   

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has hit just when cold and flu season is in full force. To further complicate matters, symptoms of cold, flu, and the coronavirus can be very similar. According to the CDC, symptoms of the coronavirus usually appear two to 14 days after exposure and include cough, fever, and shortness of breath. 

If you suspect that you are ill, or your child is ill, stay home! With a virus as contagious as COVID-19, it is important that individuals play it safe and help stop the spread. If you or your child have any symptoms, avoid contact with others until you are symptom-free. We all need to do our part to make sure our friends and families stay healthy. 

Erica Kearney M.A., LABA, BCBA, is Executive Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

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. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit