Special Needs, Safety, and the COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak - Friends of Cyrus II
Organization providing services and supports for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
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Special Needs, Safety, and the COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak

Special Needs, Safety, and the COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across the globe, the world is finally beginning to understand just how connected we truly are.

Because while humans regularly discriminate based on trivial differences (like race, religion, disability, and sexual orientation) “zoonotic viruses” like COVID-19 are unimpressed by our imaginative stereotypes. They treat us the same, no matter our differences. That is, with one exception:

They discriminate based on our body’s ability to handle their attack. 

In many ways, defeating this virus will be the greatest challenge of our collective lifetimes. It will require a coordinated effort, fueled by compassion and care. Beating COVID-19 means saving as many lives as possible. But in order to do this effectively, we must first understand which groups are most in need of our protection.

Who is at risk?

Turn on the news, and you will hear a strong emphasis on keeping the elderly and immunocompromised as safe as possible. Prioritizing these groups is, of course, extremely important, since their rates of mortality are much higher than most. But there is another group the media is giving far less attention, who is also highly at risk. 

We are talking about individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (or IDD). 

Here at Friends of Cyrus, it is our responsibility to educate our own audience, but also others who may come into contact with individuals in our community. With that said, here is some important information to keep in mind about individuals with IDD, during the 2019-2020 coronavirus outbreak.

Why is the IDD community considered “high risk?”

There are several factors that make individuals with IDD, and special needs groups more generally, at greater risk. Here are a few:

Reason # 1 – Individuals with IDD are more likely to have chronic health conditions

Children and adults with special needs are far more likely to have chronic health conditions than those without. On average, this puts them at greater risk. Health conditions often come with comorbidities — meaning the same person may have multiple, interrelated health issues or disorders. 

Reason # 2 – Individuals with IDD are more likely to have weakened immune systems.

The primary symptom of a weakened immune system is being susceptible to infection. Not only do “immunocompromised” people get infections more frequently, their illnesses might be more severe and/or harder to treat. This is especially concerning for a disease like COVID-19, which puts people at risk for pneumonia. 

Reason # 3 – Individuals with IDD may not be able to communicate feeling ill

Individuals with IDD may have a harder time communicating how they feel. This can be especially true of non-verbal individuals. Some non-verbal people communicate via sign language or gestures. Others may use Augmentative Communication Devices Often, the problem isn’t that these individuals can’t communicate, it’s that the rest of us aren’t attuned to their style of communication.  This means we need to be extra vigilant. 

Reason # 4 – Individuals with IDD may be hyper-sensitive 

Some individuals with IDD may have co-occurring mental health issues (such as anxiety disorders), making this an especially unsafe time for them. Others, such as individuals with autism, may be particularly sensitive to noise, disorder, and anxiety around them. Conditions like these can cause secondary dangers.  

How to spot if someone with IDD is feeling sick 

If an individual is feeling unwell and they are verbal (i.e. can communicate their discomfort), it’s simply a matter of listening and taking their words seriously. If an individual is either very young or non-verbal, there are still many signs to look for. The key thing to remember is that it isn’t our duty to diagnose them. The vast majority of us aren’t doctors, and since the symptoms of COVID-19 can vary, when in doubt, you should seek professional medical opinion. 

Here are a few signs to look out for: 

Notable COVID-19 symptoms            

Taken from the CDC, this graphic covers some of the more serious symptoms of the disease. In the most serious situations, COVID-19 causes significant respiratory illness. 

Classic “Flu” Symptoms

You should also be on the lookout for classic flu-signals. Again, since the symptoms of COVID-19 can vary, it’s possible that any of these could also be present in Coronavirus. Either way, flu signals require significant medical attention as well. 

  • Dehydration (dark urine or very little urine)
  • Fever (check it at least twice a day if an individual isn’t feeling well)
  • Vomiting or diarrhea 
  • Raspy or wheezy breathing 
  • Changes in skin (rashy or clammy)
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Unable to hold head up, even when is supported


For more on the common flu, please refer to the CDC

Notable Changes in behavior

If you notice drastic behavioral changes in an adult or child with communication challenges, (for example, kicking, hitting, biting themselves or others), they might be trying to tell you they aren’t feeling well. It is important to pay attention to any behavioral changes and contact their doctor if something seems off. All behavior should be documented. And don’t forget to bring your notes with you to the doctor’s appointment. 

Changes in Appetite

If you notice unusual changes in eating habits, it could be a sign an individual with IDD isn’t feeling well. In such circumstances, changes should be documented and tracked for 24 hours. If the pattern continues, reach out to a doctor. Make sure the doctor is aware of any regular medications the individual takes, in order to ensure there is no drug interference with new medications. 


This article is not a comprehensive list. It is only meant to be a helpful resource. When in doubt,  always seek the opinion of a medical professional. Most importantly, do not forget to take all necessary hygienic precautions. Both for yourself, and for individuals you care for. 

Refer to the following links for professional resources on the COVID-19 pandemic:

CDC Resources
NIH Resources
WHO Resources

Finally, besides taking care of our loved ones, once again, don’t forget to engage in SOCIAL DISTANCING to FLATTEN THE CURVE.

The Friends of Cyrus family wishes you safety, health, and love during these difficult times. 


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