During a recent PW Podcast episode, we spoke with Daniel A. Doherty, MD, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics and Research Affiliate for the Center on Human Development and Disability at the University of Washington. Following is a summary of that interview:

How has COVID-19 impacted children with special needs?

The impacts can be divided into direct effects of the infection versus acute effects on short-term learning and medical care, and then long-term effects. There isn’t a ton of information available yet, but we know that children are relatively less affected by coronavirus compared with adults. However, it appears that people with down syndrome have a markedly increased risk for severe disease. There may be other specific high-risk groups, but by and large, while children with disabilities are at higher risk than other children, there is nothing specific yet known about most conditions.

It’s obvious the pandemic has been disruptive for families and school and other systems that support children with special needs, which depends somewhat on a child’s specific type of special needs. It can impact medical care and result in distance therapy services instead of in-person. The pandemic changed everything about a person’s routine, but children are sometimes less adaptable to such changes. And we don’t know much about the impacts these short-term disruptions are going to have on the long-term health and development of this population.

Severe behavioral disturbances have definitely increased during the pandemic, which we’ve seen in neurotypical populations with domestic violence and suicide rates. But it also greatly impacts children who normally have a lot of attention and are kept from being bored, who overall now have increased aggressive behavior toward others, but also self-injurious behaviors toward themselves.

The pandemic has also impacted, in particular, routine immunization care for other illnesses, and dental care has really suffered. Those impacts, because they’re distributed over the entire population, may be just as great as the impact of direct coronavirus infection in children. So, we are encouraging parents to continue with routine care through their healthcare providers, as we have learned how to prevent transmission in those settings.

What parent resources are useful to help adjust to these situations?

I think there’s a lot of concern about information sources among the US population and questions about what sources to trust and whether science really is correct. Obviously, I’m a strong believer in following the science, and although the CDC has made some missteps, they are a good source for health information. A wide variety of resources for families of children with developmental needs includes The Arc program, a national organization focused on people with developmental disabilities. And many universities have health and behavioral resources through their websites.

As far as providing needed direct care, I’m not sure that the patient organizations have been able to have much of an impact, because the need is so great that I think it requires more of a school system and government response or that level of response