Nonprofit aims to help special needs students disrupted by COVID-19 "earthquake"

Nonprofit helps students who are left behind
Nonprofit helps students who are left behind 04:05

A new approach to teaching students with special needs is taking shape as students around the country return to some form of schooling. With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing unique challenges already, experts fear children that need more intensive educational support are in danger of being left behind.

"He doesn't have much receptive language. And he was starting to understand small things," New York mother Kristen Teodoro told CBS News' Jamie Wax. "He was starting to want to participate in group activities, which he'd never really wanted to do. And then COVID happened."

Teodoro, whose 5-year-old son Hudson is on the autism spectrum, turned her concern into action and founded Hudson's Helping Hands." The nonprofit offers support to children with special needs by encouraging socialization and engagement within a group setting. For health and safety, temperature checks are performed at the entrance, all parents are required to wear masks and group activities are conducted outdoors. 

Teodoro founded the group earlier this year, during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, after safety lockdowns left her without resources to meet Hudson's needs.

"A lot of schools in my area that were for special needs children decided that they weren't opening," she said.

While more than 7 million public school students in the U.S. receive special education like Hudson, only 20% of those students received the support they were entitled to during the pandemic.

The Long Island mother took matters into her own hands and sent out a post on her social media. Soon after getting a groundswell of volunteers, Teodoro decided she was "doing this."

The CDC estimates one in 54 American children have autism spectrum disorder, and one in six are diagnosed with a developmental disability. 

For those children, NYU Steinhart School Vice Dean Kristie Patten said, the pandemic was "an earthquake."

"It was such a huge transition to take special education and move it home," she said.

Patten said the idea that autistic individuals "don't want to have friends, don't want to be in social situations" is a common misconception.

"We know a lot of kids who thrive in those social situations, in addition to knowing they thrive on routine, and having a schedule," Patten said. 

For those children and others, having that schedule was disrupted by lockdowns and remote learning, as well as having peers "that connected with them."

As for Teodoro, she said she hopes other parents step up to mend the disruption where school falls short. 

"We're our children's biggest advocates. And if you want something done for your child, you have to do it yourself," she said. "So I hope this inspires other parents to kind of, you know, take it into their own hands."