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May 28, 2020

Healthy Living: Autism in Pandemic

Whether it’s curfew hours, face masks, no graduation, no travel, COVID-19 has drastically uprooted all that was normal in our lives. And yes, these measures are meant to keep us all safe. But for some vulnerable populations, the adjustments have been harder than others. We hear about one such story in tonight’s Healthy Living.


Marleni Cuellar, Reporting

It’s been over two months since twelve-year-old Mateo Almeida has been able to play with schoolmates on campus. Like many children his age, he misses what his everyday routine was. Except for Mateo, that routine is how he maintains order in a world that he struggles to understand.


Christy Almeida, Mateo’s Mom/Founder, Autism Belize

“Mateo is, well, because he’s on the spectrum and severely autistic, routine, changes in lifestyle always affect him in some way shape or form.   Mateo is twelve years old, and he’s non-verbal. He can tell you a little bit of words but not much basically, he can tell you his name and even that he breaks up in syllables. “Ma-te-oh,” and that’s it.”


Since last year, Mateo has been attending Horizon Academy, where he’s learning socialization and life skills with the other children. When the school closed in March, Mateo and his mom, Christy, still visited school with his aide to keep up his routine….and then the lockdown happened.


Christy Almeida

“When the restrictions happened. I’ll be honest I had a little bout of a freak out. I kept thinking if nobody can come here. I have no help, how do I take a shower. I can’t leave him alone, how do I go grocery shopping, I know some grocery stores said they’d deliver but then it was like a two day wait. Everyone was trying to figure it out, and I couldn’t depend on that. I can’t take him into the store, he’s not going to wear a mask on his face how do I get food? Developmentally, you’d probably put him at like a two-year-old. When I say he can’t be left alone when I take a shower, he can’t be left alone. He doesn’t understand the danger. Imagine a twelve-year-old who is my height – a big boy – but doesn’t understand the sense of danger.”


Christy contacted Human Services and was able to get permission to have Mateo’s aide continue to work as a healthcare worker. According to Clinical Psychologist, Deshane Gutierrez-Lopez, routines help autistic children understand the world around them and how to respond.


Deshane Gutierrez-Lopez

Deshane Gutierrez-Lopez, Clinical Psychologist, Counselling & Psychology Services

“Routines help them to regulate. So that is one of the main reasons why routines are important for them, and they really like routines. Because of how they process information, what may seem ordinary for us, for them, they may have different sensory inputs. So how they perceive the environments depends on how they can predict what is about to happen.  The example if for us who are not autistic in terms of the pandemic really impacting us. For us, we were having difficulty in just trying to normalize.”


…even the wider society struggles with what’s being called the ‘new normal’ during the COVID-19 pandemic. So if getting used to facemasks and limited movements is hard on us, it’s even more difficult for autistic children, like Mateo.


Christy Almeida

“He loves just moving that motion, you put him on a train a car a boat he’s the happiest. So a lot of his rewards in the afternoon, he’d go to school, he’d do his work we would go for a car ride, and he doesn’t care where. I can drive from here down the highway and back up, and he’s just happy we don’t have to stop. It’s calming for him.  He doesn’t understand so every afternoon he comes and brings the keys and says “car, car, car.  I had one of the police stop points ask me: “Miss, why isn’t he wearing a mask” and I’m trying to explain to them. Through all of COVID, I have probably educated quite a few cops who have asked me why are you walking on a highway? Why isn’t he wearing a mask? Why is he in the car? Why didn’t you leave him at home? I mean they are doing their job, but I have to explain to them I can’t.”


And so, Christy and Deshane, as well as other psychologists, parents, and doctors, are all a part of an online support community called, Autism Belize – Let’s Talk.

Christy Almeida

“What I found out is that there are resources in Belize, but not of people don’t into where they are and how to access. There seems to be sort of like an embarrassment a stigma that goes both ways, whether perceived or real.  I feel like you just start talking about any issue that’s out there other people start to learn, and others who have the issue or affected by the issue might feel more comfortable.”


They recently started a series of webinars to help parents cope with their special needs children’s challenges during the lockdown.

Deshane Gutierrez-Lopez

“For the past two months, Autism Belize has been giving information that people are able to access. Not only for people who have children who are autistic but also for family members and also for the wider community because we live in a world that was not created with persons who are autistic in mind and so even for persons who don’t have children it’s an opportunity for them to learn and understand and appreciate.”


Christy Almeida

“All of us go through hard times I can smile and tell you great things about Mateo’s accomplishments but as great as the high’s are we have our lows too and trying to deal with it on your own can be exhausting and can be detrimental to your health and your child health. So I want you to know that you are not alone. There are people out there that will understand and can listen and not judge, and the more information you have, the more you can help your child.”
Christy invites parents, teachers, professionals, advocates, and the community to join them. Their Facebook page Autism Belize – let’s Talk, and website can help you learn more about and support autistic children and their families.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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