Sensory-friendly clinics make vaccines accessible to all

Photo shows a close-up view of a child holding a toy in one hand and an adult's hand in the other.
Children at the clinic get to pick out toys to help relieve stress and anxiety while they’re waiting for an receiving their vaccine.

For LeAndra Schneider’s two children, who have autism, waiting in line at a COVID-19 vaccine event can be overwhelming. Her son gets anxious around crowds, and her daughter often has so much energy that waiting for anything – especially something that makes her nervous – can be a challenge.

But at The Arc Lane County’s sensory-friendly vaccine clinic, both child’s needs were easily fulfilled. The smaller venue offered a calmer and quieter space for her son, and toys and activities helped her daughter pass the time.

“It was such a mellow atmosphere. They were given juice boxes, there was food to eat, [the event] didn’t have that overwhelming clinical nervousness,” Schneider said.

Schneider’s 14-year-old son, Joshua, received his first vaccine dose at a drive-thru event at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. Her 9-year-old daughter, Kalen, received her first vaccine dose at the Lane County Fairgrounds, which featured a large, echoey room and long lines. That can work for most children, but the noise and crowds can quickly cause discomfort in children with certain disabilities.

“There’s a real gap in the vaccine efforts over the last few months in reaching the disabled community,” said Todd Woodward, outreach coordinator at The Arc Lane County, a local chapter of The Arc, a national organization that advocates for people with disabilities.

Receiving a vaccine can be scary for some children or adults, but those with developmental, intellectual or physical disabilities face unique challenges in finding and receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.

Photo shows a man kneeling at a table next to a child who is playing with a toy. Both are wearing face masks.
Todd Woodward, outreach coordinator for the Arc of Lane County, sits with his son at the vaccine clinic.

The sensory budget

As an autistic adult himself, with an autistic child, Woodward says he has a unique understanding of what can impact a child and an adult. He described a person’s “sensory budget,” or how much sensory stimulation one can handle calmly before becoming overwhelmed. That could be noises, sounds, smells, the number of people around or even specific kinds of lighting.

Woodward and the organizers choose venues with minimal sensory load. That means smaller spaces where sounds won’t echo too much and those with non-fluorescent lighting (fluorescent lights can flicker and be overstimulating). It also means fewer people and no lines. Instead, children and their families can wait in an area filled with activities and snacks.

“The kids can relax and associate vaccination with something positive rather than something negative,” Woodward said.

Getting vaccinated

When a family or caregiver arrives with a child, they wait in a room filled with not just toys and snacks, but also tools to block out sensory stimulation. These include noise-canceling headphones and a hanging cloth tent called a HugglePod where children can escape some of the bright lights and feel safe.

Children are also offered “sensory bags” filled with treats and fidget toys for when they’re feeling anxious or need to release energy.

No child is ever forced to receive a vaccination. If a child becomes too nervous or overwhelmed, or expresses they don’t want to get their vaccination, the parent or caregiver can reschedule for another day.

For LeAndra Schneider, the unique environment really helped. “I really appreciated that the sensory clinics are a little bit quieter, have fewer people, that there was space for my kids to be kids,” Schneider said.

If you’re interested in attending one of The Arc Lane County’s upcoming sensory-friendly vaccination events, check out this webpage. To learn more about the clinics, watch the video below.