Experts say lack of screenings during pandemic left children with undiagnosed disabilities

With schools throughout the country back to in-person learning, the lack of screening to diagnose and provide supports for students with disabilities has become acutely apparent, according to an April 5 panel discussion hosted by Easterseals, a nonprofit that advocates for equity, inclusion and access for people with disabilities.

The webinar, “Intersection Collective: Disability & BIPOC Youth in the Week of the Young Child,” consisted of two panels highlighting challenges and best practices in effective, culturally appropriate programming and research to support youth of color.

A consistent challenge discussed in both panels was the lack of screening during the pandemic, which has left more children returning to or enrolling in educational programs for the first time with undiagnosed disabilities, thereby hindering the ability to provide them with early intervention.

“Many of our children didn’t visit the doctor during this time, so we have lots of undiagnosed disabilities that we’re encountering,” said Donna Davidson, president and CEO, Easterseals North Georgia, which operates 11 inclusive child care programs serving nearly 2,000 children and their families annually — 90 percent of whom live below the poverty level.

Carol Watson, senior vice president of programs at Easterseals DC MD VA, agreed that the lack of doctor’s visits was a challenge during the pandemic, noting that the effects have continued as many offices are backed up with families now trying to make appointments.

Without early access to interventions, Watson said a lot more children are entering the classroom in need of intensive services, including applied behavioral analysis (ABA) — a type of therapy often used with children with autism spectrum disorder to help improve social, communication and learning skills through reinforcement strategies.

“The early intervention services, and the impact of the delayed diagnosis, means that children are behind,” Watson continued. “They’re behind in terms of the learning loss but also getting the therapy that they need. Our team has been going out into the field more to meet children where they are and get them caught up, get them those screenings and get them matched up with the services they need.”

Autism is a developmental disability that can affect how people think, communicate, interact and process sensory information. Many children with autism find comfort in routines or other coping mechanisms that address their unique needs — routines that the pandemic drastically interrupted for many. Children on the autism spectrum may not have received the added support they usually would have in school or had trouble processing their online lessons during school closures. While some students with disabilities thrived with distance learning, others stalled both academically and social-emotionally without the in-person support of therapists, teachers and peers.

Students of color also faced additional hardships as a result of the pandemic. A June 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that COVID-19 “deepened the impact of disparities in access and opportunity facing many students of color in public schools, including technological and other barriers that make it harder to stay engaged in virtual classrooms.”

Panelists noted that for students of color diagnosed with autism, the challenges can be even greater, especially if they have a parent wary of the education system due to their own experiences. Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, chief clinical officer of autism services at Easterseals Southern California, noted the importance of building a diverse workforce that can ensure more families feel supported and understood.

“What we found in our studies was that Black and Hispanic families reported that their service providers didn’t spend enough time with them, didn’t provide enough information, didn’t make them feel like a partner, and lacked cultural competencies of the family’s beliefs and values,” Pompa-Craven said. “What we’re doing is looking at those individuals who want to go into the field of ABA, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists — and really try to promote those individuals by providing mentorship, educational tuition reimbursement, and really partnering with universities with our recruitment staff to get out there and … focus on diverse groups to bring them into our organization.”