Our society reveres doctors, trusting them to have the most current and groundbreaking knowledge and use it to heal our every ailment. This is especially true for parents of children with autism, who are hoping and praying for a medication, a strategy, a cure - anything to fish their children from the unpredictable sea of autism and unlock the key to this mysterious disability.
But what happens when you are the expert? When you take your child to a specialist or a new pediatrician who has little or no experience with children with autism?
Once again you are your child's voice and must advocate for a positive experience for all involved. Follow these tips for making your child's next trip to the doctor a successful one.
Sensory issues Parents of children with autism have learned to study every shirt tag, chair fabric, and store's music system in an effort to avoid negative reactions based on their child's sensory needs. Visit the doctor's office prior to your appointment to take a look around. If there is something that may irritate your child, ask the receptionist if she can help you make arrangements. It may be as simple as turning off the music on the day of your visit.
Wait timeThe first time you visit a new office you may be able to get away with having your child wait without behavioral overreaction. Once your child learns this is the place where he gets needles, you may have less time to work with. Waiting in an exam room as opposed to the general waiting room may make you and your child more comfortable. Bring toys, books, or a portable DVD player to keep everyone occupied while you wait.
Pairing positivesUnfortunately, your child may associate the doctor or nurse with pain or unpleasantness. Drop off some stickers, books, or toys your child likes before the appointment and ask the nurse or doctor to give them to your child upon arrival. Pairing the doctor or nurse with something your child likes will help him feel comfortable in this environment.
Specific languageEvery family has their own terminology or phrases that they use and families of children with autism are no different. Your child may understand certain words that calm him down or prepare him for what is coming. I once worked with a student who had to have blood drawn frequently to monitor medication for another condition. "Boo boo arm, then all done" prepared him for the fact that the needle was going to hurt a little bit but it would be over quickly. Prepare the nurses, doctors, and receptionists with language that will help calm your child.
Who's in charge? I've been at doctors' appointments where the parent is the person the child is comfortable responding to and I've also been the person in charge, especially when the parent decides they are too emotional to be the one taking the lead. Establish who is taking the lead, giving directions, and reassuring the child as we all know too much language can be overwhelming for any child. If the role of leader needs to change during the appointment or procedure, acknowledge the change by telling the child "Now listen to Dr. Smith." Establishing one point person eliminates confusion and creates a more efficient visit.
Every family has to find a doctor they feel comfortable with and families of children with autism are no different. You may have to take some extra steps to make sure your visits with the doctor are positive but many times a simple step will go a long way.
Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.