Sensory-friendly pediatric ER inspires awareness and acceptance

A dark hospital room with bed and chairs and colorful lights displayed on the walls and ceiling

A trip to the emergency room can be stressful for any child – the anxiety of not feeling well, long waits, and an endless flow of techs, nurses and doctors. For a child with autism, the stress of a hospital environment can be so overwhelming that it can severely challenge the ability to give and receive treatment.

Logo for World Autism Awareness Day

HCA Healthcare was honored to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day, marked on April 2 every year

This National Autism Awareness Month, HCA Healthcare would like to recognize caregivers at affiliate The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial for launching one of the first sensory-friendly hospital programs in Middle Tennessee for children with autism spectrum disorder.

A sign in a hospital that says Autism and Sensory Friendly Department

In 2018, The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial debuted an autism and sensory-friendly program at their pediatric emergency room and Kids Express Clinic

“The parents have been so grateful,” said Donna Perlin, M.D., a pediatric emergency physician and the architect of sensory-friendly accommodations at the Nashville-based children’s hospital. “They have been pleased to see that we want them to come, that we’ve made them feel welcomed, and we’ve shown them that we’re willing to adapt to their child, rather than making their child adapt to us.”

The kids that will change our world

From exercise facilities and water parks to celebrities like Amy Schumer, who recently shined a spotlight after disclosing her husband was autistic in her new Netflix special, there has been a growing trend to normalize, rather than stigmatize, autism spectrum disorder.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. It affects an estimated one in 59 children in the United States and is four times more common in boys than girls.

“There are many different forms of autism, which is why it’s called the spectrum,” Dr. Perlin explained. “There’s everyone from the nonverbal child who really has difficulty communicating, to people like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison or Bill Gates who are extremely bright and use their neurodiversity to think outside of the box.”

A female doctor standing outside a hospital pediatric emergency entrance

Donna Perlin, M.D., pediatric emergency physician at The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial

Dr. Perlin, who spearheaded the autism-friendly spaces first in the pediatric ER and Kids Express Clinic at The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial, believes people are beginning to realize children on the autism spectrum have a lot to offer society.

“We need to let our families know that we value these kids on the autism spectrum,” she said. “They have a lot of strengths that businesses and communities are going to need to be innovative. These kids are often the ones who are going to change our world.”

The ‘blueprint’ for change

Dr. Perlin noted that many people with autism tend to have sensory issues. And for a child on the spectrum, a hospital can be overwhelming.

“They focus on things that we don’t necessarily notice like a texture or a clock ticking or dripping water, and perceive those types of noises at a much different level than we do,” she said. “An emergency room can be a chaotic place with all of the lights, noises and people, and all of the commotion can cause their brain to fire neurons at such a rate that it can be incredibly overwhelming.”

Last July, The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial established a “blueprint” for ways to help their autistic patients and their families avert and avoid over-stimulation. Some of the steps taken include:

  • Equipping the ER with quiet rooms upon admittance to help decrease the stimulation for the child
  • Changing the fluorescent light fixtures, which can buzz or hum, to LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting and adding a dimmer function to lower the brightness to the child’s comfort level
  • Securing projectors that project different patterns of light on the ceiling that are soothing
  • Providing noise canceling headphones
  • Shifting the monitors to ring at the nurse’s station instead of the patient rooms, and
  • Supplying softer gowns.
A dark hospital room with bed and chairs and colorful lights displayed on the walls and ceiling

The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial established a “blueprint” for ways to help pediatric patients living with autism spectrum disorder

The HCA Healthcare children’s hospital is also in the process of adding softer name bands to their sensory-friendly “toolkit”. Additionally, the clinical staff members at The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial have been trained in autism sensitivity and awareness.

“We’ve provided instruction to our staff and have tried to ‘bunch the care’ so that our caregivers don’t go in and out of the room, which will provide fewer disturbances and less stimulation for the child and family,” Dr. Perlin said. “What we’ve tried to do is realize that we need to treat these children differently, while also supporting the parents.”

Light it up Blue

Nearly nine months after implementing this program in the emergency department, The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial, the first children’s hospital in the HCA Healthcare family to implement an autism-friendly program, is expanding its efforts to their pediatric unit, including pediatric intensive care, pre-admission testing and surgery.  The goal is for the entire hospital to be autism-friendly.

“I’m hoping that our “blueprint” for this program will be used as a resource by other hospitals who are interested,” Dr. Perlin said. “It’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t cost much to do, and it makes a huge difference in the care of these kids.”

According to Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization, there has been an increase in the availability of quiet rooms and low-sensory areas, as well as a significant rise in autism-friendly events, over the past several years. From theme and water parks to theaters and sporting events like NBA games, there is a growing effort to accommodate those on the spectrum and their families.

“It’s exciting that more businesses are approaching kids with autism and realizing that, even though there’s a neurodiversity, it doesn’t mean they are defective. It means they just see the world differently. We need to be able to adapt and help them harness all of their talents and strengths; it would be a waste not to.”

A man holding up his daughter outside during fall

Today and every day, HCA Healthcare invites you to show support for the millions of amazing children, men and women living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And a special thank you to our innovative caregivers, like Dr. Perlin, who are on the front lines, raising the bar for autism awareness and acceptance.

Every April, the world recognizes National Autism Awareness Month, beginning with United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.  The day is aimed at encouraging Member States of the United Nations to take measures to raise awareness about people with ASD throughout the world.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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