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Two people sit at table, there's a plate in foreground, person on left holds a red cup For caregivers of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) this time can also be fraught with worry. With the spread of COVID-19 comes fear of the unknown, changes in routine, and feelings of helplessness. Navigating how to explain COVID-19 to someone with I/DD and the swift changes to everyday life can be overwhelming. At YAI, we believe that the people with I/DD should be treated with dignity, respect, and honesty. We recommend that caregivers take a calm and matter-of-fact approach to explain what COVID-19 is and how to prevent it.

How to Explain COVID-19 to a loved one with I/DD

  1. Find a quiet space free of distractions to speak to the person.
  2. Speak in a matter-of-fact but calm voice. Make sure that your body language shows that you are also relaxed.
  3. Ask the person if they have heard about COVID-19 or coronavirus. Explain that COVID-19 and coronavirus are the same thing.
  4. Use simple terms to describe COVID-19. Explain that COVID-19 is a new virus that people around the world are getting. People who get the virus might have a cough, fever, and shortness of breath and feel very sick.
  5. Reassure the person of their safety and talk about steps of protection. For those who like superheroes or other brave characters, you can say that now is the time to act like that character.
  6. Talk about a few ways to keep safe. Keep the list simple and direct.
  7. Use “we” phrases. For example, “In order to try our best we must wash our hands frequently and use hand sanitizer.” Using “we” allows the person to understand that this is a collective effort.
  8. Provide examples of what to do, not what not to do. “We must keep our hands to ourselves. If we want to say hello to someone we can wave instead of hugging or shaking hands. If we have to sneeze or cough, we need to make sure to cover our mouth and wash our hands immediately.”
  9. Explaining that there is no school or program can be difficult. Make it clear that staying at home is a way to keep ourselves and others healthy.
  10. Provide examples of other people staying home like classmates, family members, or people the person admires to make it clear that this is something many people are doing.*
  11. Remind the person that this is temporary. If the person perseverates on when school or program will begin, try to place focus on other dates on the calendar. For example, hone in on dates where you will watch a special movie or speak to a friend. This way, the person can have other more concrete plans on which to focus.


*When speaking about being home, try to be enthusiastic and have an optimistic approach. Ask the person what sorts of activities they want to do when home. Provide options and try to make the schedule as detailed as possible. Reach out to the person’s school or program to find out if there are any certain topics or activities the teacher suggests. Schedule movement breaks and time to connect with others through video chat, phone calls or letter writing.

Answer questions with honestly and frankness. If you do not know an answer to a question let the person know you will look for an answer. For those who do not use words to communicate, it may be easier to explain the situation using visuals. See below for visual explanations under “Social Narratives.”


About Coronavirus:

Caregiver information:

Precautionary steps for caregivers

For more information in how to manage free time with family members look to YAI’s Behavior Management Blog articles:

Behavior Management During Breaks Part One

Behavior Management During Breaks Part Two

Social Stories and Narratives:

Washing hands visual chart

Anxiety and COVID-19

For more information and resources, visit our Resource Database to explore resources related to COVID, advocacy & legal services, education information, and more.