More ERs aim to improve experience for autistic patients

By Paige Minemyer

A trip to the emergency room can be a stressful, time-consuming experience for any person, but for those with autism, a visit to the ER can overwhelm the senses so fully that they cannot receive the care they need.

A small but growing number of emergency rooms across the country are working to address this problem, adding accommodations to help patients with autism, a neurological disorder that impacts communication skills, according to a Kaiser Health News piece published by CNN.

Emergency department visits are more common in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than those without, with an estimated 1 in 68 children with the disorder making regular use of emergency care, according to a February study published in Pediatrics. Children with autism are also more likely to seek mental health treatment at the emergency room, researchers found.

To accommodate the population, several hospitals now offer calming aids like toys and iPads, dim lighting and quiet waiting rooms, according to the KHN-CNN piece. A pilot program for autistic children Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando, Florida will offer patients and their families a separate play or waiting area, as well as headphones and other sensory tools to help children calm themselves if they become overstimulated. The hospital also intends to limit the number of people in rooms for testing and other procedures.

Children's hospitals in New Jersey, District of Columbia, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and South Carolina are undertaking similar measures, according to the KHN-CNN article.

The number of children diagnosed with autism continues to grow--the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in 45 children was diagnosed in 2014, up from 1 in 150 in 2000, KHN-CNN reported.

A study published in January in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders showed that autistic adults are also more likely to seek treatment at the emergency room, so the changes are even more far-reaching.

The cost to update protocols and train staff to work with autistic patients doesn't have to be expensive, according to KHN-CNN. Autism Speaks, an advocacy group for people with ASD, has subsidized the training for some, according to the article.

"You can adapt your protocol without changing drastically," Joann Migyanka, an associate professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, told KHN-CNN. "Some of it is slow down. That's difficult in an emergency department but ... if you slow down a bit, and give them a bit of time, in the long run, you will save time."

To learn more:
- read the KHN-CNN article
- here's the study abstract from Pediatrics
- check out the CDC report (.pdf)
- here's the study abstract from JADD