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Quad-Cities experts: During pandemic, structure is best for those with intellectual disabilities
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Quad-Cities experts: During pandemic, structure is best for those with intellectual disabilities

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The life-altering challenge that is the new coronavirus can present even greater problems for those with intellectual disabilities.

An intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills.

"Remember, people with intellectual or other disabilities are still people, who still experience the full range of emotions,'' said Ben Layer, a nationally certified school psychologist and founder of PURPOSE, a Moline-based life-coaching center. 

"Structure, communication, love and care are still important in these trying times,'' Layer added. "However, structure is ever-changing in dealing with the coronavirus and you have to be able to change — for the good — in a moment's notice.''

For over 50 years, Davenport's Handicapped Development Center has helped individuals with varying disabilities learn vocational, social and personal skills, and develop self-esteem, self-fulfillment and self-sufficiency skills.

Jeff Ashcraft, HDC's CEO, says isolation and a change in habits for someone with an intellectual disability can become an issue.

"For some, the change in routine is very unsettling," Ashcraft said. "So being contained to their homes and outside of their normal habits can mean an escalation in negative behaviors."

Layer says it's important to communicate with the individual about COVID-19, the new coronavirus, and the changes with it, but you must use facts, not fear.

"Showing panic and struggle only takes the issue to another level," he said. "Be honest and do your best to share what's going on and how to plan to address it together."

Layer says when dealing with someone with an intellectual disability, it is important to:

  • Be kind, open and respectful.
  • Help them have structure in their day.
  • Heighten your listening skills and understand the surroundings. Let them talk.
  • Exercise if possible. Walk. Play a game involving all that someone sees on a walk.
  • Understand emotions can change in a hurry.
  • Always speak directly to the person.
  • Never change your style of communication.
  • Never push. You are breaking from a routine they have become comfortable with.
  • Be creative. Use technology to your advantage.  If there is a relative or friend he or she is fond of, make it a priority to involve them.

"Flexible thinking in paramount, yet there must be structure," Layer said. "Play games. You must be your best at listening and communicating. Allow them to be creative."

Kelly Senatra is a Rock Island mother of two. Her 13-year-old son, Patrick, is autistic and non-verbal. Senatra, a longtime blogger about autistic issues, is the mother of the children's book "Little Brother, Big Hero."

Senatra says Patrick doesn't understand the enormity of what is happening in the world right now, so he does not carry the fear many of us do.

"He doesn't understand why he cannot go to swimming at the gym or that he cannot go to school or the movies," Senatra said. "He doesn't understand social distancing or personal space, so if he gets to go outside or go to the store, the trips are quick and deliberate and his hand is held the whole time."

Patience, Senatra says, is a must in dealing with Patrick.

"Autistics need consistency and routine, and life right now is the opposite of that," she said. "He just turned 13 and it was cake at home with his family. He didn't get to go to his favorite restaurant or the trampoline park like last year. We are hoping things get better over the next month so it's OK for us to make our trip to Disney World because he asks about it almost every night. He will eventually adapt to the new normal like the rest of us, but the transition is harder."

In the wake of the coronavirus, the HDC has closed down its day-service operations and is focusing all resources on the two residential programs it operates. Ashcraft said all HDC residential participants are doing well with the challenges.

"Many with intellectual disabilities really appreciate their friendships and families, and we currently have a no-visitor policy," Ashcraft said. "So we are trying to facilitate opportunities to connect via Facetime, Skype, emails, and plain old phone calls."

"Autistics need consistency and routine, and life right now is the opposite of that.''

Kelly Senatra


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