For adults and children on the autism spectrum, getting a COVID-19 vaccine is easier said than done

Submitted by bobb on Mon, 8/11/2021 - 08:27

Neryssa Azlan

Peta Rostirola received her COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccine site and thought the whole process was smooth and easy.

But when her 13-year-old son, Pablo, became eligible for the vaccine, she knew it would be a different story altogether.

Pablo is on the autism spectrum, and while experiences may vary, people on the spectrum may deal with sensory issues if they visit a new or crowded place.

"The whole process took over an hour, and there is no way my son would be able to cope with that," Ms Rostirola said.

"It would've been stressful [for him]."

Vaccine sites can be triggering

Ms Rostirola also works as an NDIS support coordinator and is aware of the needs of families who support someone on the autism spectrum.

With the delta variant outbreaks in some parts of Australia, she said there had been rising concerns among the parents she works with about getting their children vaccinated.

The biggest challenge, however, would be getting them vaccinated at mass vaccination sites.

"Some of the kids require two support workers and a parent to come with them," she said.

"It can be challenging to sort out the logistics of bringing the child and their supports to these vaccine sites."

Two children weariing a mask and carrying backpacks

It's not easy for people with disabilities to access mass vaccination centres if there's no specialist staff available.(Unsplash: Kylie Sikkema)

Sydney mother Michelle managed to secure an appointment for her son, Ollie who is on the spectrum, at Qudos Bank Arena.

However, Ollie also has severe anxiety and sensory issues when it comes to crowds, and he found it difficult to even leave the house on the day of the appointment.

"I had to call around for a GP and managed to book an appointment for him with them on another day," she said.

"Ollie was too anxious to leave the car, but they were kind enough to greet us at the car park and could get him vaccinated in the car."

Although she managed to get his first dose out of the way, there was an added challenge to get him to leave the house to attend his second dose appointment.

While the rest of them are vaccinated, Ollie's family are still concerned that they may bring the virus back to him.

"It's not as easy as forcing Ollie to get vaccinated because he understands why it's important for him to get the vaccine," Michelle told the ABC.

"He wants to get the vaccine, but he can't because of his anxiety."

Support needed on a local level

A man standing in front of a school with four smiling children.

David Raphael and the staff at St Lucy's worked together to get their students vaccinated so that they could make the school a safe space.(Supplied)

Ms Rostirola's son, Pablo, was eventually able to get vaccinated through a local medical practice thanks to his school, St Lucy's in the Sydney suburb of Wahroonga, which caters to children with disabilities.

"We kept the school open as best as we could because the nature of our students meant that they needed structure and stability, and we wanted to support their parents," said David Raphael, the school's principal.

"In order to do that, we had to take extra precautions including making sure that our students and staff had access to the vaccines."

To help boost the vaccination rate among their staff and student, the school had reached out to a few medical clinics where they could direct staff and students to get their COVID-19 vaccine.

They first had to make sure that the clinics understood the needs of people with disabilities.

"It's really important for them to understand the anxieties and the behaviour that occur [among our students]," Mr Raphael said.

"It all went smoothly because our students were able to get the vaccine with their friends and were in a comfortable space."

Adults with autism can also face challenges

A couple standing in front of a lake.

Anwyn Shoemark lives with her partner, Aaron, who she has known since they were 15.

Graduate architect Anwyn Shoemark's eagerness to get vaccinated has been tempered by her phobia of needles, which her autism only exacerbates.

"Due to my autism at a very young age, I developed a phobia of needles that was never addressed in the health care system properly, and it led to multiple traumatic medical events when I was a child," she said.

She tried to contact NSW Health, hoping to explore alternative ways she could get vaccinated, but she said she was referred back to her GP

However, finding a GP, psychologist or professional who understood female adult autism was not so easy.

"Medical care has always been extremely difficult for me to access as an autistic female," Ms Shoemark said.

"I have spent over $10,000 out of pocket seeing psychologists and psychiatrists to improve my needle phobia and autism coping skills.

"However, in my case exposure therapy along with other phobia treatments for it [has] just made my phobia worse due to autism."

When contacted for comment, NSW Health said that, in some cases, the best point of care for people with extreme phobias was their GP.

However, it has also opened a sensory room in south-west Sydney for people with autism, aiming to make the experience of getting vaccinated as stress-free as possible.

from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-07/covid-vaccines-and-children-auti…