"Everyone wants to be on that road to normalcy," says Eagles Autism Foundation Executive Director Ryan Hammond.
While the increased distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine provides a light at the end of the tunnel after one of the most difficult years of our generation, there is a group of people on the sideline whose voices and needs have not been heard in the sprint to return to a pre-pandemic lifestyle – the autism community.
A recent study across several hundred health care organizations in the United States concluded that individuals on the spectrum are at a substantially increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Shouldn't the vaccine alleviate those concerns? On the surface, yes, but individuals with autism are not able to wait in long lines at distribution centers or wear masks and maintain a safe social distance at a pharmacy. Even if those with autism are eligible to receive the vaccine, roadblocks are hiding that light at the end of the tunnel.
On Saturday, the Eagles Autism Foundation provided hope for those on the spectrum by hosting a vaccination clinic at Lincoln Financial Field in partnership with Divine Providence Village. More than 1,000 vaccinations were administered as the Eagles Autism Foundation provided a sensory-friendly environment featuring a visual schedule, story-based intervention, and quiet rooms for all eligible members.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges to individuals with autism and their families," Hammond says. "We wanted to create an environment that was dedicated to their specialized needs so that members of this important community could be vaccinated in a safe and efficient manner. We would like to thank Divine Providence Village for their amazing partnership, and all the medical professionals and support staff who made today such a success."
"Today is very important for the Philadelphia community and the autism community because it signifies that this group is different, this group has special needs, and special needs as it relates to COVID-19 vaccinations. Today is the actualization of that," says Jim Gillece, the father of two sons on the spectrum, Trey and Griffin.
Angela Babcock, the director of nursing at Divine Providence Village, was proud to work with the Eagles Autism Foundation in transforming Lincoln Financial Field into the ideal vaccination site for those on the spectrum. Divine Providence Village is a residential facility in Delaware County that serves individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities. Since becoming a COVID-19 vaccine provider in January, Divine Providence Village has administered more than 12,300 vaccines to its residents, employees, and the community.
"It's a number one priority for individuals with autism to have a site that caters to their individual needs. We're here to provide that individualized care that not only do they need, but they deserve," Babcock says.
As a caregiver of two children with autism, Gillece says that he and his wife, Pattie, felt a responsibility during the pandemic to remain safe in an extra special way because of their children's special needs. It can be more difficult for people on the spectrum to communicate their symptoms, which presents additional challenges when dealing with doctors or in a hospital where they need someone to advocate for their care. It's also been trying for the Gillece family to explain to their children why they haven't been able to do "normal" activities such as attend Eagles games over the past year, while combating the unknown effects of virtual learning and social isolation.
Before Saturday's visit, families could show pictures to those on the spectrum to prepare them for every step of the process. Upon arriving in the lobby of Lincoln Financial Field, the sounds of birds chirping played not to pay homage to the Eagles, but to provide a sense of calm and relief. Break rooms and sensory-friendly rooms were available if families needed to decompress prior to receiving the vaccine. The 10 vaccine administers on site were trained to work with those on the spectrum. If necessary, they would come out to the parking lot and provide the vaccine in the car if the stress of entering the stadium was too overwhelming. Those who received the vaccine on Saturday will return to Lincoln Financial Field to receive the second dose.
"The Philadelphia Eagles have customized every part of the process that makes it easier and well thought out for families," Gillece says. "It's been a remarkable experience and a great day."