Dr. Wendy Ross, a pediatrician, was honored as a CNN Hero in 2014 for her work advocating for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Now, as director of Jefferson Health's Center for Autism and Neurodiversity in Philadelphia, she's making it easier for them to get vaccinated.
"A lot of them get easily overwhelmed in crowds. They have a lot of sensory issues, they tend to be very anxious in new experiences," Ross said. "We reduce that stress by having a very low-stimulus environment ... We just sort of slow down the pace and make it more relaxed."
For those who are neurodiverse, Ross' sensory-friendly clinic is a welcome refuge. There's more space between appointments, which means less waiting in line, and the office has special seating, fidgets and even sunglasses available to help people stay calm. Trained vaccinators have strategies to help the process go smoothly.
But these accommodations aren't just about comfort. Ross conducted a study that showed that people with intellectual disabilities face a greater risk of Covid-19.
"What we discovered was that having an intellectual disability was the number one risk factor for getting Covid and the second risk factor -- only below age -- for dying from Covid," she said. "This is an invisible population and our goal is to make them visible and cared for adequately."
Ross has resources available on her office's website to help neurodiverse individuals prepare for vaccinations and other Covid-related issues. She also asked a focus group of young adults with intellectual disabilities what people vaccinating them should know, and she later turned this into a video PSA with the Special Olympics.
Dawn Powell had concerns about getting her 16-year-old son Anthony vaccinated, because in addition to having autism he had a lot of anxiety about getting a shot. Ross and her staff had to try a few times before they were successful, but Powell was grateful for their efforts.
"I didn't think it was going to happen ... but they did it," she said. "As a mom, it means everything ... When we go to regular clinics, they kind of give up on the first try."
Ross says that a number of people have told her they would not have been able to get their children vaccinated anywhere else.
"Getting the vaccine to this population absolutely is saving lives," she said. "I just feel that everyone matters and has value and that everyone should be included."