LOS ANGELES – Margie Garcia, mother of an 18-year-old with autism, is desperate to see her son receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
But she fears that the sight of the syringe could trigger his fear and cause him to run away or attack someone.
Earlier this month, her son Niko took dozens of other young adults and children with developmental disabilities on a practice run at a mock hospital. He went through a registration process, then a nurse placed a syringe – without a needle – against his arm and stamped the area with a bandage. He then sat in an observation area and wore red headphones to block out unexpected noises. Bubbles and balloons floated around him all over the parking lot.
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The clinic’s goal was to create a controlled environment that was free of stimuli that could cause stress, and that worked for her son, said Garcia, 47.
“It is so difficult to achieve a vaccination climate for people with no special needs,” said Garcia, who was concerned that her son would be overwhelmed by unexpected noise or bright light. “It’s really, really good for him.”
For most children and young adults with developmental disabilities, the vaccination process occurs without incident. The scene at the Friendship Foundation’s mock clinic – a nonprofit in Redondo Beach – was mostly calm, and other than a few grimaces and some persuasion, most of the participants walked through the simulation with ease.
However, reactions to a new environment can be unpredictable and worry parents and lawyers. Some are cautious about exposing their children to situations where they can panic and physically resist. People with autism don’t always respond to commands from a stranger. The mock clinic itself was inspired after a parent told the story that their son had to be held to get the shot.
According to proponents, a standard vaccination clinic is not always a cheap place to get a chance for some people with disabilities: the appointment slots are rigid, the time to feel comfortable in a new environment is limited, the waiting areas are overwhelmed. The experience can create fear for anyone. For those who may not understand what the process involves, this can be debilitating.
To simplify the home vaccination process, this year the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department unveiled an initiative called Operation Homebound, which sends teams of health workers and police officers to vaccinate seniors and people with disabilities in their homes.
However, the program using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been suspended after a pause in the distribution of the vaccine.
Home vaccination shots would be the preference for people with disabilities who fear needles or have difficulty controlling their bodies, said Judy Mark, president of Disability Voices United.
“With that option off the table for now, it’s important for these individuals to practice and feel prepared before they get the shot to reduce their anxiety and discomfort,” she said. “We need to find a way to ensure health care and services to people with developmental disabilities who work for us – not the system.”
The mock clinic – a collaboration between Disability Voices United and the Friendship Foundation in collaboration with vaccine provider Curative Inc. – offered walk-through and drive-through options. Curative should return to the same place in a couple of weeks for a one-time Johnson & Johnson dose – although it is currently unclear when that might be the case.
“They’re going to see doctors today, they’re going to see medical personnel. It will give them practice to calm their minds, ”said Nina Patel, executive director of the Friendship Foundation. The room was familiar and many of the helpers were familiar faces – trust had already been built.
The mock clinic, which was developed with vaccine recipients in mind, had two goals: Patients could familiarize themselves with the idea of a shot in a safe place, and families could provide feedback to staff on what to do – and what not to do .
Don’t ask overly complicated questions.
“Try to keep it simple,” said Sister Jiamin Lin, 30. Lin, who worked with Curative to give the vaccine, said a big tip she received was to hold up two fingers for a patient can point to the answer “yes” or “no”. Such lessons, as well as videos and photos of the event, would be shared with curative staff and other members of the disabled community.
Many of the families who showed up for the mock clinic had children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine but will be in the coming months. Early practice was welcome for them.
Carrie Wetsch, 48, said her 14-year-old son Tyler is not doing well with needles. And the pandemic has limited her boy’s social interactions. The ability to pretend getting a shot from the comfort of the car was an experience that Tyler will benefit from in the long run.
“I think these positive memories of him will make a huge difference. That can make or break an important medical situation, ”she said.
Brandon Velasquez, 39, felt similar. He had spent the week preparing his teenage son for the experience. He was nervous and can’t always share his feelings, his father said. But he made it to the last step, accompanied by his father and his puppy Kobe.
“I feel good,” said the boy in the waiting area.
For someone like Niko Garcia, a teenager with autism, the ability to get the shot in a familiar space is essential. To reduce the risk of misunderstandings with the authorities, Niko’s mother registered him as a child with special needs with the local sheriff’s department in Carson.
“He has a disability and is Asian. Nowadays, Niko is discriminated against twice, ”said his mother Margie Garcia.
At the end of the 15 minutes, the participants took five employees home and took goodie bags filled with balloons, sweets and stickers.
Mission accomplished – the real shot was coming soon.
© 2021 Los Angeles Times
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