by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.
The Coronavirus epidemic has flooded our airwaves and rightly so. We must be prepared for any type of virus which could create any type of sickness, let alone one potentially leading to death. I have had a number of individuals reach out to me and ask what is the best way to work with our exceptional individuals to warn them of this and get them to take positive action, without creating undue stress and fear. This really requires us to know the individuals with whom we are dealing and use it as a learning tool that can carry into other aspects of life.
The first thing we need to do is discuss how to stay healthy. Daily activities like washing hands thoroughly, sneezing or coughing into a facial tissue or elbow if a facial tissue is not easily available are two things to begin to review. Explain how diseases can be carried through the air and on surfaces. But, by properly washing hands, we reduce the number of germs on them. By sneezing or coughing into a facial tissue or elbow, we are making sure not to spread germs toward others. After the sneeze, we need to wash our hands too. Discuss how hospital masks can be something which helps to reduce the germs coming in or out, but we still need to make sure our hands are clean. Also consider an alcohol-free foaming hand-sanitizer when hand washing is not possible.
Bring up how to properly clean our areas too. This is an excellent opportunity to establish a purpose behind why we put away our things, wipe down tables and trays, and throw away our trash. For those wondering, I highly recommend moving away from bleach-based wipes. Bleach leaves a residue which can be problematic for those who like to touch and put their hands or other objects into their mouths. It also has a distinct odor which can cause issues for some with sensory processing issues. So what is good to use? I am a big proponent of Clorox Hydrogen-Peroxide Disinfectants. They work as well as the bleach wipes, but address the two issues above with high success. Some use peroxide to clean and whiten teeth, so that concern is eliminated. The scent issue is almost non-existent. Ironically, if you use Lysol Disinfectant Spray or products, you will see that one of the germs it works on is human coronavirus. The current outbreak is related to that and more severe, but we know that the folks at Lysol were doing their due diligence!
Several groups have been concerned about the anxiety associated with talking about death and viruses. First, you know the cognitive level of the individuals with whom you are working. If they are of moderate to higher cognitive levels, then share the news exactly as it is with them. There have been deaths associated with this and it is right for them to know. For those individuals of lower cognitive functioning, explain that one needs to be careful and take care of his/herself or bad things can happen. We know that some individuals may not understand the differences between various illnesses and we do not want them to get over-anxious anytime he/she has a cold. Explain that not all sicknesses lead to death. By taking proper care of oneself, one can stay as healthy as possible.
The next thing we want to discuss with them is healthy eating. Not all of our exceptional individuals will be taking vitamins as a supplement to their food. Thus, we need to emphasize eating as healthy as possible. Again, you know the individuals with whom you work the best. There are going to be situations where highly processed foods are the only choices available to these individuals. So discuss things like having a bowl of cereal or a slice of bread/toast in the morning. As the basis for this discussion, use the idea that eating in a healthy way helps to fend off colds. Make the adjustments you need to make to your discussions taking into account the individuals in front of you. If you think it’s appropriate, share what you eat and why.
Dressing appropriately is also another topic to bring up here. Again, relate it directly to your individuals. There may be some who do not have coats, gloves, or hats. If that is the case, maybe see what is in the school or institutions lost and found and share with these individuals if possible. Some of our individuals may not be able to dress themselves, but that does not mean that they should not hear this discussion. They need to be included so that they might have the ability for self-advocacy later in life.
The next item to consider bringing into these lessons is Emergency Preparedness. Start with what do you do if someone gets sick in the class? Discuss and create in a visual chart how to move and where to go. Keep it simple in the way the individual flow will go if someone does get sick. Let everyone in the class know that it does happen. You can also expand that to other emergency situations. Let them know what to do if you have external issues like a fire or tornado. It is again essential to have visual cues as to where to go if these situations occur. If you have an individual who would need to use something like an evacuation chair, like the EvacuaSafe Excel, teach the individuals to stay out of its way and let them know that it is for a specific individual. It is not a toy and is only used for safety purposes.
Basically, we are reminding our individuals of how to live a healthy lifestyle and complete certain hygienic daily activities. We are using the current events in an open and honest way to reinforce the importance of these daily health activities. Yet, we are not going immediately to the “do this or die” mentality that I have heard some in the public forum suggest. We are also using this as an opportunity to review emergency procedures. Having plans like this reviewed is important for all individuals. We are not avoiding the issue; rather, we are using it as a learning tool. Our exceptional students may be getting a lot of their “worldly” information from online sources. We need to recognize that fear and anxiety can form quickly when these sources are the basis for interpretation of global issues. Being cognizant of this and working to explain things in an applicable way can move to decrease irrational escalations. This event also gives us the opportunity to create those visual maps and plans that are good for all in the time of any emergency.
Finally, invite the school nurse in as a guest speaker. Have her speak about how to stay healthy. Let our exceptional students see that school nurse as a leader in health and wellness, not just someone you see when you are sick. When we approach this epidemic in a balanced manner, addressing the specific needs of our population at a level they can understand, we create the ability for them to live the best life they can!