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USciences Faculty Supports Autistic Community At COVID Vaccine Clinic

By Jenna Pizzi

Published on December 15, 2021

Ashley de Marchena, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Director of USciences’ InterAction Lab, volunteered at a special COVID-19 vaccine clinic on December 11, 2021 at the Academy of Natural Sciences for people with sensory issues. The clinic was hosted by the AJ Drexel Autism Institute and Sunray Pharmacy and offered vaccines and boosters.

“Kids and teens on the spectrum sometimes need a little more support with medical procedures, like vaccines,” said Dr. de Marchena. “So resources such as mass vaccination sites and large pharmacies might be less accessible to them.”

Ashely deMarchenaThe clinic provided families with simple, yet effective, tools to support their kids through the vaccination process. 

“For example, a visual schedule helps kids know what to expect even if they don’t have strong language skills,” said Dr. de Marchena. “Simple distractions, such as fidget toys, can be offered to help alleviate anticipatory anxiety.”

Dr. de Marchena offers the following tips for supporting patients on the autism spectrum: 

  • Use clear and direct language. Always speak to the patient directly before turning to a parent or other support person.
  • Be calm and patient - people on the spectrum often appreciate more time to process information. Try to be comfortable with longer silences so that your patient has an opportunity to ask questions.
  • If you know a patient has a disability, but don’t know how to help them, just ask, “what can I do to help support you today?” Then make sure you give them enough time to answer.
  • It’s ok if they are nervous or unsure - do not try and talk people out of their feelings.
  • Practice acceptance of behaviors that may seem unusual. For example, things like pacing, rocking, and fidgeting might look like signs of distress, but for many autistic people, they are soothing behaviors and actually a sign of active coping. If you think a patient might be distressed but you’re not sure, just ask! And if they tell you they are fine, take their word for it, even if it “looks” like they are not.

Dr. de Marchena said she volunteered at the event because it helps her to support autistic people and their families while also playing a role in supporting public health. 

“It is important that we continue to get COVID vaccines to as many people in our community as possible,” she said. 

Dr. de Marchena is available to consult with USciences faculty, staff, or students who are working to expand their toolkit for helping kids and adults with developmental disabilities access medical care.

Categories: News, Faculty, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Psychology, Neuroscience, Community Service