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Herzing Staff

How Healthcare Providers Can Support Patients with Autism

As an advocate for your patients and their family, your support and understanding can make a massive impact on their lives.

For many people, visits to the doctor or a hospital can be intimidating and stressful. However, for patients with autism spectrum disorder, the discomfort felt while at a medical facility is often enhanced. Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Autism, is a condition that impacts the brain’s development, altering how individuals perceive information and socialize with others. The symptoms and severity of autism vary by individual.

According to the World Health Organization, about one in one hundred people have autism, with characteristics often being detected during early childhood—but not officially diagnosed until later in life. While there is no proven cause of autism, scientists believe that a combination of environmental and genetic factors can contribute to the diagnosis. 

As an advocate for your patients and their family, your support and understanding can make a massive impact on their lives.

Why Do You Need to Care?

In nursing, proper representation of your patients is essential—especially when they face discrimination and are often misunderstood. Common symptoms of autism are intense discomfort in unknown spaces, and difficulties communicating – verbal or non-verbal – often causing a patient’s reaction to be misconstrued and misinterpreted. Because of this, medical staff who are not educated on autism can treat patients unfairly, or worse, not know associated comorbidities that can interfere with diagnosis and treatment. 

Individuals with autism can face the following co-occurring conditions:

  • ADHD 
  • Anxiety 
  • Bipolar Disorder 
  • Depression 
  • Epilepsy/seizures 
  • Feeding Challenges 
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders 
  • Sleep Disorders

These conditions can be lifelong challenges for patients with autism, sticking with them from childhood to adulthood. As a nurse, it is important to understand the associated conditions to ensure proper treatment and procedures are followed to help your patient. By being aware of the symptoms and characteristics of autism, you are in a better position to support your patients with high-quality care.

How to Make a Difference

How can you make that happen for your patient? Having a solid foundation of awareness and understanding of the characteristics and symptoms of autism can help you recognize the best methods for treating your patient. Once a foundation and level of trust are built with your patient and their family, you can implement a plan of action for care. 

Here are some tips to succeed in caring for a patient with autism:

  • Treat your patient with respect: Individuals with autism are sometimes patronized and treated as if they are children—regardless of their age. Providing quality care means providing all patients with the same level of dignity and respect. Speak to your patients clearly, being supportive of their requests and understanding their struggles.
  • Limit the number of care providers: For those with autism, being in an unfamiliar environment like a medical facility is stressful. Not having a set pattern and schedule, and being around all new faces can upset the patient and can result in them feeling anxious, uncomfortable, and irate. By having a set routine of people, the patient can get to know and trust, comfort will eventually grow, allowing your patient to feel more at ease.
  • Practice patience: Visiting the hospital or doctor’s office can make anyone feel uncomfortable—especially those with autism. This sense of unease can cause the patient to experience disturbing or difficult behaviors, such as anger. Recognize the factors influencing the reaction and take what you’ve learned into account as you readjust your care plan and realize that often someone’s reaction isn’t a reflection of the care offered, but rather of the stress they feel.
  • Prepare for the unpredictable: While being prepared and educated on what to do is important, knowing when to adjust your plan and pivoting to best suit an individual’s unique needs is vital. Always be ready to make a new care strategy to ensure your patient is comfortable and content. 

Remember, what works for one patient may not work for another. The most important thing is to approach every interaction with an open mind and a willingness to learn and adapt. With these tips and maintaining awareness, you can make sure your patient not only gets the care they deserve—but can feel at peace throughout the experience. 

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* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics 2023 / Occupational Outlook Handbook 2022. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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