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New Program Makes Emergency Department Visits Easier for Children with Autism

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Children with autism often have trouble communicating or understanding their medical care. For these children, a visit to the hospital–especially to the Emergency Department–can be a scary, stressful, or traumatic event.

To address this, Children’s National Health System has rolled out a new program to help ease anxiety in children with autism during visits to the Emergency Department
at the Sheikh Zayed Campus for Advanced Children’s Medicine. The Help Keep Me Calm program was developed by Child Life Specialists with a grant from Autism Speaks, a leading autism science and advocacy organization.

The Help Keep Me Calm program at Children’s National has three components:

  1. Questionnaire: During the child’s initial assessment in the Emergency Department, parents of a child with autism will be asked to fill out a questionnaire. It includes questions on how the child communicates, previous experiences he or she has had in the hospital, any triggers or sensitivities, what the child finds calming, and more. This information will be kept with the child’s chart so that all of our providers in the emergency room–and in other units, if the child is admitted–can review the information and use it to tailor their approach when caring for your child.
  2. Communication Boards: Child Life partnered with our speech therapists to create pictorial boards to help children with autism communicate pain or basic needs and prepare them for procedures. The boards include an image of the body so that a child can point to where they’re having pain, and a pain scale with facial expressions to indicate how severe the pain is. It also includes pictures to represent basic needs–like thirst, pain, or needing to use the bathroom–and step-by-step illustrations to show some of the most common Emergency Department procedures.
  3. Toolkit: Toys with repetitive movements or ones that provide particular sensory inputs are soothing for children with autism. The Emergency Department now has several “toolkits” with these toys for children to play with to keep them engaged and entertained.

“We want this program to support multiple components of care for children with autism,” explains Catherine Boland, CCLS, Child Life Specialist. The communication boards were rolled out last year, and the grant from Autism Speaks allowed for additional resources to expand the program to its current three-pronged approach. “We plan to continually evaluate and adjust this program going forward to best suit our patients’ needs,” Boland says.

Emergency Department staff are being trained to offer these resources, but parents are encouraged to ask about the program or to let the Emergency Department staff know that their child has autism when they arrive at Children’s National.

“We want to be able to offer this support from the very beginning of your visit, to create a better experience for you and your child,” says Annalise Walker, CCLS, Child Life Specialist.

The Help Keep Me Calm program also will be expanded to the Emergency Department at United Medical Center in the next year.

How Child Life Specialists Make Hospitals Less Scary for Patients


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