No one wants to think about it, but emergencies happen — even to our children. Whether for a broken bone, injuries caused by a serious fall, or even a seizure, there may be a day you need to call an ambulance. This is difficult for any parent, but it can be particularly challenging if your child has autism.
Of course, a child with autism may not respond the way another child would when working with emergency personnel. If there’s ever a need to call 9-1-1, be sure to let the dispatcher know if your child has autism.
The good news is that hospitals and their staff are becoming more aware of the special needs of children with autism.
“Every day, we typically have at least one child with autism spectrum disorder in our pediatric emergency department,” says Jessica Timms, MS, certified child life specialist at Fairview Hospital. “Since our hospital has a behavioral health unit, we tend to see more of these patients.”
You also can help medical personnel understand the needs of your child. Some behaviors may need interpretation.
For example, how does your child show he is in pain? Does he hum or rock back and forth? Let emergency personnel know. Will he answer when they ask him what hurts? Or if they need to check his airway, will he be unsettled? You can help explain behaviors while you calm your child.
As you know the particular sensitivities of your child, you can direct medical personnel. Let them know if he has trouble communicating, if he has certain repetitive behaviors (and what they mean) or if he has unusual reactions to sensory input.
In particular, let medical personnel know if these are common for your child:
If you think it would help your child, you can ask if medical personnel are able to turn off sirens and flashing lights.
“First and foremost, you want to offer as much information as possible about your child,” says Ms. Timms.
“Let emergency personnel know if your child is verbal or nonverbal, if they have any tics and the best way to approach them. Let them know what fixations your child may have. If your child is fixated on trains, for example, you might say, ‘Let’s pretend our ambulance is a train. Look, the driver is our conductor.’”
Also, remind staff that it is best to give directions one at a time, Ms. Timms says.
“Parents sometimes forget that all caregivers are not familiar with a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ approach, where directions are simple and each explained and completed before moving to the next step,” She says.
For example, you might advise staff as follows: Have them say to your child, “First you will sit on the stretcher.” Next, have the child sit on the stretcher and then proceed to give another direction, and follow through with that step, and so on.
“Also, if a parent has a communication tool that the child utilizes regularly and is able to bring it with them, they should advocate for their child in educating the staff with what the tool is — and how the child utilizes it in communicating more effectively,” Ms. Timms says.
By communicating openly with medical personnel, you can do a lot to get your child the best possible care.