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Autism Support Team Creates ‘Safe Passages’ for Patient Care

Meet Chayna Humphrey, Eileen Walters and Kathleen Atmore

The Autism Behavioral Communications (ABC) support team. It is staffed by Eileen Walters, ABC program manager; Kathleen Atmore, an autism specialist and developmental neuropsychologist; and Chayna Humphrey, program assistant.A few years ago, Eileen Walters, then a Children’s National Nurse Navigator, was facing a challenge. A patient with autism in her care had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and was having trouble receiving and adapting to her medical treatment plan.

At the same time, her medical team was having trouble finding the best possible way to deliver care without causing her a traumatic experience. Walters wanted to immediately do something to help her patient, and also saw an opportunity. She knew she could help countless other current and future patients who have autism and related behavioral and/or communication challenges that need extra support with medical care.

She brought together a group of direct caregivers from Nursing, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Child Life, Social Work and other areas to form the Autism Awareness Team. The team worked together to discuss autism-specific medical care in their areas and created strategies to improve care. Realizing the positive outcomes from the Autism Awareness Team’s efforts, Walters envisioned Children’s National as an autism-friendly hospital where a team approach could help put patients with unique needs at ease by giving their care teams the tools they need to create a therapeutic health care environment. 

After years of planning, the Autism Behavioral Communications (ABC) support team was launched. It is staffed by Walters, M.S.N., R.N., C.P.N.; Kathleen Atmore, Psy.D., an autism specialist and developmental neuropsychologist; and Chayna Humphrey, program assistant.

Now, the team stands at the ready to support caregivers in their effort to provide the best care for all patients with autism and related behavioral and/or communication challenges at Children's. "The ABC team is using information about the specific needs of each child, and then pairing that with what the child is going to experience during their medical care here,” says Walters, who is now the ABC program manager. “There are also opportunities to improve the way we deliver care systematically. By putting certain new practices in place, we’re creating safe passages in how we handle their care.” 

The ABC support team is one of the only formal programs currently available at children's hospitals across the country that offers dedicated support to patients with autism with behavioral challenges who are already being treated for various medical conditions at Children’s. The team partners with colleagues when working with patients who have autism to help them understand the child’s needs, and help them work around some of the challenges they may face when administering care. 

Dr. Atmore, who has a child with autism, said people with autism typically think visually, not verbally. They need help understanding information about their care, and caregivers can learn how to adapt their communication so patients can understand and learn from it.“If you have a patient who is deaf, you would have a person come in and interpret,” Dr. Atmore says. “It’s similar if you have a patient with autism; you need to have the ability to translate that information into something that makes sense for them.” 

Helping a patient make sense of their treatment plan is just what Dr. Atmore and Walters did for Walters’ patient with autism and Crohn’s disease a few years ago. Working closely with her family and a legion of Children’s staff members from many corners of the hospital, they saw a dramatic change in the child. Now, she is able to navigate her treatment plan and even looks forward to coming to see her medical care teams here.If you’re aware of any potential challenges with patients like Walters’, contact the ABC Support team, and they’ll meet with hospitalized patient families to develop a plan or provide resources and strategies to help ambulatory patient families. 

These plans will be customized to each patient with autism or behavioral challenges and will be linked with their electronic health record (EHR) so every member of the care team has access and is aware of how to best accommodate the patient’s special needs.For more information or to learn how to request support, visit the ABC page or contact the team at or 202-476-2884.

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