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The COVID-19 pandemic has cast the United States, along with the rest of the world, into a time of crisis and uncertainty unlike any other in recent memory. Months into the pandemic, there is scant agreement among scientists, government officials, and large segments of the public, both domestic and abroad, as to determining the causes and workings of the virus, designing appropriate and effective responses to the outbreak, and constructing accurate assessments of the future—or even of the present. Indeed, the availability of concrete information about the virus and its effects is grossly inadequate and often replaced by anecdotal or impressionistic depictions, not infrequently accompanied by rumor and speculation. Perhaps at some point in the future, with the benefit of the passage of time and access to reliable data, we will better understand important elements of the pandemic. Amidst the current state of knowledge, however, any attempt to learn lessons from the events of the past few months remains a tenuous—if not altogether dubious—enterprise.

Nevertheless, despite the overwhelmingly confusing and confounding aspects of the crisis, certain preliminary conclusions appear to have emerged, including a recognition of the disparate impact of the virus on some segments of the American populace. Specifically, it seems fair to say that vulnerable populations have been disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 national crisis. Among these populations, individuals with developmental disabilities—including, but not limited to, autism—have faced a number of monumental challenges, bringing about numerous adverse effects. Significantly, in addition to exacerbating some of the preexisting systemic conditions that ultimately gave rise to these calamitous results, the crisis has exposed the underlying reality of society’s failure to provide appropriate services and supports to individuals with developmental disabilities, in at least three separate but interrelated areas: special education, mental health, and physical health. Based on an examination of information that has become available, this Essay briefly surveys the tragic effects of the crisis in each of these areas.

Conversely, the Essay concludes with the suggestion that out of these tragedies—somewhat counterintuitively, if not ironically—there may grow a glimmer of hope toward the future. In particular, though to a lesser degree, other segments of society are likewise experiencing challenges in the areas of education, mental health, and physical health—and many individuals and communities are experiencing these challenges for the first time, in ways that were, to them, previously unfamiliar if not largely unknown. Though perhaps overly optimistic, it can be cautiously hoped that this newfound awareness will bring about a measure of sensitivity, empathy, and understanding, and a determination among society-at-large to respond to challenges that, even under the best of circumstances, have long confronted vulnerable populations.

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Arizona State Law Journal Online