The following is a commentary from May Institute published in a special edition of The Provider, the newspaper of The Provider's Council, on April 1, 2020.
By Lauren C. Solotar and Eileen G. Pollack
Within days of preparing the first draft of this article, our world has been upended by COVID-19. Our commentary was meant to mark Autism Awareness Month in April, and we had been preparing to utilize this opportunity to educate the public about the needs, strengths, and challenges in this community, and what people could do to help and support. Then everything changed.
This global pandemic demands our full and complete attention as a society, and it can and will feel like there is little room or energy for other issues.
As we move into and through April, it is not surprising that calls for increased awareness of autism, earlier diagnoses, and intensive interventions are all but drowned out by the urgency of the public health crisis we are facing. But those of us whose jobs revolve around providing services to individuals with disabilities fully recognize that the needs of this community are constant, despite the world changing around us.
Just weeks into what will inevitably be a long road, three areas of focus stand out for us as we adapt to this new reality.
First, responding effectively will require nimbleness, creativity, and clear-sightedness. Program closures, quarantines, and risk of exposure are testing us in a way that most have never experienced. May Institute and organizations across the Commonwealth, the United States, and the world are grappling with how to ensure continuity of care in an unsettled world.
At May, we are re-learning what we already know to be true – that it takes a village. Our interdisciplinary COVID-19 Response Team, comprised of 14 staff members from across the organization, is coordinating strategy, meeting daily, and communicating continually. Program by program, our clinical and administrative leadership is planning for and responding to the needs of individuals in our care. They are addressing everything from overarching policies and safety procedures to the smallest details that will keep these children and adults not just safe, but happy and engaged and feeling secure.
Second, we must take the long view. Regardless of how well we respond to this tsunami of COVID-19 infections, experts warn of the likelihood of waves of new cases over the foreseeable future. We must be planning for today and for tomorrow. By preparing staff for redeployment to programs with the greatest needs. By transitioning to online training and supervision to ensure staff preparedness. By thinking outside of the box in terms of different approaches to providing important services for people with autism and other special needs, and what those services might look like after weeks and likely months of an isolated society.
Third is prioritization of the needs of our workforce. We are preaching to the choir when we tell the human services sector that our employees are the first line of defense when it comes to the safety and well-being of the individuals in our care. We must advocate more fiercely than ever for the needs of our workforce.
People are anxious, frightened, and uncertain of what lies ahead. And yet they are showing up, stepping up, and doing a remarkable job providing stability, comfort, and compassionate care in essential service programs across the state.
In spite of everything, it’s still Autism Awareness Month. And awareness does matter. Perhaps more than ever. Perhaps this crisis will make all of us more aware of and empathetic toward not only the needs of individuals with autism, but of the needs of all of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities and our world.
Lauren C. Solotar, Ph.D., ABPP, is May Institute’s President and Chief Executive Officer.
Eileen G. Pollack, M.A., is the organization’s Senior Vice President, Communications and Public Relations.