By Tori Mason

(CBS4) – The impact of COVID-19 on people with autism has always been greater. Data suggests people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are more likely to contract COVID than others. As neuro-typical people emerge from the pandemic, many on the autism spectrum are catching up.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 44 children have autism. Autism is more than four times more common in boys than girls and ASD is far more underdiagnosed in females.

Jo Klein says she always knew she felt different or didn’t belong.

The 72 year old was diagnosed with autism late in life and the moments she felt misunderstood finally started to make sense.

The average age of diagnosis is 4 years old.

“You’re always on the sidelines. You’re never included. Now I understand why I was always on the sideline,” said Klein. “We’re part of society, but we think differently than you do. We act differently.”

Klein told CBS4’s Tori Mason about moments in her professional life when she was met with condescending remarks from coworkers, simply because they didn’t understand her way of processing.

She learned about the programs at Firefly Autism and finally felt understood after joining.

Firefly Autism celebrates life on the spectrum beginning at 18 months old.

“[These kids] are getting things that I didn’t learn until I was 71. I had to endure this for 71 years,” said Klein. “I found out that your differences are normal for you. That’s what’s important.”

Dozens of students from 13 different school districts in Colorado receive services at Firefly, but isolation during the pandemic has made autism even harder to diagnose.

“Those behaviors or skills that might be developmental are probably not standing out as much as they would if you were in more of a social setting,” said Paula Jacques-Bonneau, Services Coordinator at Firefly. “You’re certainly not getting feedback from educators or behaviorists saying they’re not meeting that developmental benchmark.”

COVID was a challenge, off and on the spectrum.

Routines are critical and their sense of belonging had to happen from home.

Jacques-Bonneau says Firefly pivoted immediately when the pandemic hit.

“I’m so proud of all of our people here. They’ve worked so hard. They never think of giving up of or that they don’t want to do this,” said Jacques-Bonneau. “We were constantly reevaluating what we need to make this easier or more seamless for this person. How do I work this out so the team feels connected? How do we get this family really involved?”

At the start of COVID, Firefly’s adult skills programs had just started, creating new obstacles for adults like Klein. The social skills and sense of belonging were invaluable.

“Coming together once a week, twice a week, they feel accepted. They feel a part of something,” said Jacques-Bonneau.

Clients like Klein had to adjust to the virtual learning curve many neuro-typical people still struggle with.

“I did it on Zoom, but that was very hard for me. The technology. I’m just learning to text,” said Klein.

Klein says she was still able to gain the customer skills to get a job in retail sales and couldn’t be happier to be back in person at Firefly.

Jacques-Bonneau says it’s likely Klein’s not the only one underdiagnosed, re-entering our old world. As we emerge from isolation, the community should consider kindness and the type of patience Klein had to have for 71 years.

Tori Mason