PHILADELPHIA — Trey Gillece, 20, was nervous as he rode the escalator up to the second floor at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and entered a concourse remade Saturday as a coronavirus vaccination clinic.
“I don’t know, guys,” he said. His father, Jim, patted him on the back, leading him toward the folding table.
Trey sat down and gripped a small football. As his son trembled, Jim crouched down, placed his arm over his left shoulder and spoke to him. “Trey, look at Dad,” said brother Griffin, 18, holding his phone to take pictures.
The needle slid into Trey’s arm. “Wow! Yes!” he exclaimed, as the crowd around him applauded. “I’m OK. I’m OK.”
Trey, who has autism, was among the first served during the clinic hosted by the Eagles Autism Foundation and Divine Providence Village, a residential facility in Delaware County for people with intellectual disabilities. The event catered to the autism community, which has faced some particular challenges in getting vaccinated.
Some families worry children with autism won’t be able to wait in long lines at walk-up clinics, or may have challenging behaviors while getting vaccinated, said Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. One family told Hammond their daughter had been outside so infrequently during the pandemic, they didn’t know what taking her out in public Saturday would look like.
Families have also been struggling to access doses: Pennsylvania hasn’t included autism on its list of conditions to be prioritized for vaccination. Philadelphia, which is distributing doses independently, recently added people with intellectual disabilities to its priority list — a group that includes some people with autism. But caregivers weren’t included, though they have been elsewhere in the state.
Philadelphia parents of children with disabilities aren’t eligible for the vaccine. But they would be if they lived elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
Saturday’s clinic was for eligible people with autism — who had to be 18 or older — and family members, Hammond said. Just over 1,000 people registered for the Moderna doses.
“This population needs support,” Hammond said. “We need to meet them where they are.”
To that end, the foundation tried to create a sensory-friendly experience — repurposing luxury boxes as “quiet spaces” with fidget toys, weighted blankets, and light projections on the ceiling, intended to create a calming atmosphere. Families could spend time there if a child became overwhelmed, and in some cases, nurses entered to administer vaccines privately.
The by-appointment clinic also allowed families who anticipated their children would have trouble going inside the stadium to receive doses in their cars, Hammond said.
And organizers tried to help caregivers prepare for the experience by providing a visual schedule of the day’s events — a step-by-step series of photos showing the lobby, the escalator — to share with their children to help alleviate anxiety.
Eagles build specialized room for children with autism at Lincoln Financial Field
Marge Muccioli, of Holland, waited until Saturday morning to tell sons Michael and Nick about the clinic — wanting to avoid triggering nerves.
“Since COVID started, anxiety has been through the roof,” said Muccioli, whose sons — both 21 and on the autism spectrum — received doses in one of the quiet spaces Saturday. Both have been in virtual school throughout the year, afraid of returning to the classroom, Muccioli said.
Saturday’s clinic was the first designed to serve people with autism that she came across, Muccioli said, adding she had been “looking and looking” for options.
It has also been a tough year for Cynthia Charleston of Northeast Philadelphia and her son, Lafayette, 24. “We can’t go anywhere,” said Charleston. “I thought it wouldn’t bother him, but it did.” Lafayette wasn’t nervous about Saturday, however — holding a favorite sensory toy, a funnel with a piece of twine that twirls, as he received his shot.
For Jim Gillece, who had been stressed searching for vaccines through retail pharmacies and health care systems, the clinic was the perfect fit for sons Trey and Griffin, who is also on the autism spectrum.
This is “just a godsend to us and our family,” said Gillece, who lives in Malvern and has raised money for the Eagles Autism Foundation. He was also joined by his wife, Patti.
The Gilleces knew Trey would be apprehensive. Jim Gillece spent time walking his son through the visual schedule for the clinic: the lot where they would park, the spot where they would gather after getting their doses. Still, Trey woke up at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, worried.
“Take deep breaths,” Hammond advised him.
After getting his dose, Trey marveled that the experience was over.
“You know what, guys, what was I thinking,” he told his family. “I’m safe now.”
“You did awesome,” said Diana DiMemmo, a nurse from Divine Providence, which has vaccinated more than 12,000 people since January.
Many people getting their vaccines have been anxious, and “you have to figure out what their needs are,” DiMemmo said. Trey “just pushed through and was such a brave soul.”
A second clinic will be held in late April for people vaccinated Saturday to receive their second doses. “It’s the same thing, right?” Trey asked DiMemmo.
“Same thing,” she said. “Nothing to worry about.”