Alex Rinaldi of Brandon has had difficulty adjusting to our ‘new normal’ since the pandemic. His niece, Libby Hopkins, and the rest of his family have been doing their best to help him with the challenges he’s faced.

According to, Adjusting to what we call our ‘new normal’ since the pandemic has been a difficult process for all of us, but it has been exceptionally difficult for people living with handicaps like my uncle, Alex Rinaldi.

Alex is 65 years old, partially deaf and although my grandparents never had him properly diagnosed, he is somewhere on the autism spectrum. My family has always referred to my uncle as “handicapped.”

Before the pandemic, my uncle had a daily routine of leaving our home in Brandon at 9 a.m. and going to McDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart on Causeway Blvd. for breakfast and then shopping in Wal-Mart. He next would head to the Publix across the street and then go home by 11:30 a.m. He did this five to six times a week.

When the pandemic hit, we wouldn’t let him leave the house. He had a very hard time understanding why his routine was altered, why he had to wash his hands all the time and why he had to wear a mask. To say he was unhappy would be an understatement.

“People on the autism spectrum, but also people with learning disabilities, have a need for sameness and the need for a structured routine, as well as predictability, which is very important,” said Dr. Beth Boone, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of South Florida. “What this does is keep a lot of ever-present anxiety somewhat lower, so what you are seeing is a very common response to change. It’s this sort of flash of anxiety symptoms, which can range from arguing to a full-on meltdown.”

Dr. Boone suggested we look into AFIRM/UNC Frank Porter Graham Center’s “Supporting Individuals with Autism through Uncertain Times” article to help explain the pandemic to my uncle. After reading this article, we realized we have been doing a lot of what the article suggested.

My uncle relies heavily on lip reading to communicate even though he does have some hearing. Wearing a mask made this virtually impossible for him. At one point, he said he was never going to speak to anyone outside of our house.

“People who have a hearing disability can always ask for an accommodation because of their disability,” said Raquel Pancho, ADA coordinator for the Office of Chief of Staff for the City of Tampa. “The City of Tampa’s order for mandatory face coverings states that this requirement does not apply to a person who is hearing impaired and needs to see the mouth of someone wearing a face covering in order to communicate and this requirement shall be applied in a manner that would conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Each day it gets a little easier for my uncle with our help, but each day he asks us, “When is the virus over so I can go back to McDonald’s?”

For all kinds of assistance for families with children on the autism spectrum and to learn more about CARD, visit www.cardusf.wordpress.com.