April is Autism Awareness Month — Learn How Nurses Can Help Autistic Patients

April 12, 2016

This year, in April, the blue light will once again shine on autism. During autism awareness month, nurses are encouraged to explore new techniques and research about the disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports autism spectrum disorder is on the rise. As of 2010, one in every 68 children is diagnosed and that number continues to increase at an alarming rate.

Given the prevalence of this condition, your chances of interacting with an autistic patient are high, no matter where you work. Consider the following ways you can help those unique people under your care.

Get Educated

The more we understand this condition, the better equipped we will be to manage the emotional and mental concerns that go with it. Take the time to learn more about each autistic patient, too, especially children. Spend a few minutes with the parents to find out:

  • If the child is verbal.
  • Does he or she make eye contact?
  • Is touching a problem with this patient?
  • What kind of behavior can be expected during the session?

Nurses can learn more about the current behavioral strategies for autism, as well. Your facility may have protocols in place for working with autistic patients. Common sugeestions include:

  • Imitation plus reward – Demonstrate what you are going to do on a doll first then allow the child to imitate you. Finally, reward with praise.
  • Token – The child selects a reward before a procedure. Use tokens at each milestone, when the child has enough tokens, he or she earns the reward.
  • Distraction – One of the most effective strategies, nurses sing songs or get playful during the visit to win over the child’s trust and ease fear.

Watch for Physical Abnormalities

Autism often comes with physical abnormalities that patient and parent may not recognize. Skin infections, for example, are easy to miss with nonverbal patients. Rashes and other types of irritation may be a symptom of leaky gut.

Understand Body Hold Techniques

This allows healthcare professionals to minimize trauma during an exam and reduce the need for restraining. Ask parents to gently hold their child while you do the exam or complete the procedure. This is especially critical during challenges like giving a shot or starting an IV. If necessary, demonstrate for the parents the best way to hold the child and stay out of the way at the same time.

Let the parent offer suggestions based on their experience with the child, too. Planning and implementation need to be specific for each patient. A negative experience will stick in the mind of an autistic patient, making future visits problematic. Devise a care plan in case things don’t go as planned.

Understand the Difference between a Child and Adult Autistic Patient

Nursing care for an adult with autism is very different from children. Adults have more controlled behavior, so it is difficult to assess physical pain and discomfort. Watch closely for signs that something is off. Talk to the patient’s companions about normal routines and look for patterns that might indicate a medical problem. When talking to an adult patient, simplify your sentences and get to the point. Avoid providing complex instructions, as well.

Be an Advocate

Ultimately, that is the role of a nurse, and few patients need it as much as those with autism. Spend time with your patient and the family to ensure they get the best care possible. Time is a commodity in healthcare, but a real investment with autistic patients, so worth the effort.

As a travel nurse, you will learn ways to embrace this growing autistic population and you will help raise awareness in every city you visit.