This information is aimed at all health professionals who may come into contact with an autistic adult or child for reasons other than autism.

A trip to the hospital, optician or dentist can be extremely stressful to a person on the autism spectrum. They may experience sensory overload and challenging behaviour. NHS Protect has produced guidance on the prevention and management of clinically related challenging behaviour in NHS settings that may be helpful.

It is important to involve parents/carers in all aspects of the patient's care as appropriate. Adults must be allowed to make the decision regarding the involvement of parents or carers if they have the capacity.

Appointments

  • If possible, arrange an informal trip prior to actual treatment. The involvement of the health professional at these times is extremely useful so that the autistic person can get to know them, their room and any equipment, for example, a special chair or eye glasses. Another option may be to allow the person to watch while a sibling or other family member is being treated so that subsequent appointments will not be such a shock. The advice of the patient's carer will help to inform this approach.
  • It may be helpful to book a double appointment to accommodate the patient's additional needs and ensure that you are not rushed.
  • Try to give the patient the first or last appointment of the day. People on the autism spectrum find waiting around for an appointment extremely stressful.
  • If possible, find a small side room the family can wait in.
  • Alternatively, they may prefer to wait outside or in the car and a member of staff should be identified to collect them when the health professional is ready. If the appointment is likely to be delayed, the family may wish to leave the building completely and return at a later agreed time.
  • The patient might bring a Hospital Passport with them to a medical appointment. This is designed to help autistic patients to communicate their needs to doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Before the appointment, you might suggest that the patient download and complete a Hospital Passport.

Talking to patients on the autism spectrum

Medical procedures and physical examinations

  • Always explain what you are going to do before starting any procedure or examination. 
  • If possible, show a picture of what is going to happen or use a doll (if appropriate) to explain what you are going to do. The Show me where tool could help you to explain which part of the body you are going to examine or treat. Physical examinations may prove very stressful to the patient and it is essential to warn them before touching them.
  • Explain what you are doing and why.
  • Enlist the parent/carers help wherever possible, especially if the patient is non-verbal or uses an alternative communication method or aid.
  • The Show me where tool could help you to explain what is about to happen, and to which part of the body.

Your language

  • Use clear simple language with short sentences.
  • People on the autism spectrum may take things literally. Thus, if you say "It will only hurt for a minute" they might expect the pain to have gone within a minute.
  • Make your language concrete and avoid using idioms, irony, metaphors and words with double meanings, for example "It's raining cats and dogs out there".
  • Give direct requests, for example "Please stand up." If you say, "Can you stand up?" this may result in the person staying seated or the answer "yes", as they may not understand you are asking them to do something.
  • Check that they have understood what you have said - some autistic people may speak clearly but can lack full understanding.
  • Avoid using body language, gestures or facial expressions without verbal instructions. These may not be understood.
  • Ask for the information you need. A person on the autism spectrum may not volunteer vital information without being asked directly.

Response by patient

  • Don't be surprised if the patient doesn't make eye contact, especially if he or she is distressed. Lack of eye contact does not necessarily mean they are not listening to what you are saying.
  • Allow the patient extra time to process what you have said.
  • Don't assume that a non-verbal patient cannot understand what you are saying.
  • Autistic people can find it difficult to understand another person's perspective. They may not understand what you intend to do, but may expect you to know what they are thinking.
  • Autistic people may not understand personal space. They may invade your personal space or need more personal space than the average person. 

Sensory stimuli

Some or all of the following may apply to your patient.

Lights

  • Some people on the autism spectrum are extremely sensitive to light and can discern the flashing of fluorescent lights.
  • Pen lights can trigger seizures in susceptible individuals. Seizures occur in 20-30% of autistic people.

Sensory overload

  • It is easy for someone on the autism spectrum to be overcome by sensory overload, for example in the hustle and bustle of an A&E department. Emergency lights and machines emit high-pitched 'whistle' sounds which can be agonising to them.
  • At the dentist, the noise of the drill and even the feel of cold instruments in the mouth can all contribute to sensory overload. The strong taste of mouthwash or paste can also be problematic. Similarly, the equipment used by the optician, such as the heavy eye glasses, can be difficult for the patient to cope with.
  • Whereas some might withdraw (they might, for example, put their fingers in their ears, close their eyes) others 'stim' (self-stimulate). This means they make motions such as flapping hands, rocking or flicking fingers in order to stimulate sensation or to deal with stress. This kind of behaviour may also be calming to the individual, or aid balance and posture, so do not try and stop it unless absolutely essential.

Pain

  • People with autism can have a very high pain threshold. Even if the child does not appear to be in pain, they may, for example, have broken a bone. 
  • They may show an unusual response to pain that could include laughter, humming, singing and removal of clothing.
  • Agitation and behaviour may be the only clues that the child or adult is in pain.
  • The Show me where tool can help people to indicate where they have pain or discomfort.

Injections/blood tests

  • Use pictures or a doll to demonstrate what is going to happen. The Show me where tool could help you to explain which part of the body you are going to inject.
  • Autistic people can be either under or over sensitive to pain so that some may feel the pain acutely and be very distressed whereas others may not appear to react at all.
  • It is advisable to assume that the patient will feel the pain and use a local anaesthetic cream to numb the site of injection.

Paramedics

Sensory issues are particularly pertinent for the paramedic.

  • The sound of a siren can be excruciatingly painful to autistic people, turn it off if at all possible.
  • Others may delight in being taken to hospital in an ambulance that has its siren going. It is best to consult with a parent or carer as to how the siren may affect the patient.
  • Some autistic people can be terrified by the restraints used to strap people to a stretcher. They may become extremely agitated. Try and explain why you are strapping or get their parent/carer to explain.

Accident and emergency

A&E is a very stressful experience for anybody, but for an autistic patient, it can be totally overwhelming. Not only is it a strange place, and often apparently chaotic, but the sensory experience of bright lights, bleeping monitors and other equipment can completely overload their system causing a 'meltdown', withdrawal, or challenging behaviour.

Allow the parent or carer to take control, as they will know the best way to support the patient.

  • Sometimes doctors and nursing staff ask relatives/carers to leave the room whilst giving emergency treatment. In treating autistic patients, it may be helpful to allow them to stay if possible. This can help reassure the patient, and will also allow the relatives/carers to give valuable information about the patient and their behaviour, if appropriate.
  • Inform the triage nurse that the patient is on the autism spectrum so that they can be given a higher priority than would be normal. This is to minimise the time the patient has to wait.
  • Allow the patient and carers to use the relatives room if it is free.
  • Try to limit the number of staff caring for the patient. Predictability will help them understand what is happening to them and to identify the roles of care providers.
  • Allocate a key person to the patient if possible.

Case study

James had fallen off his slide and it was thought that he had broken his arm. His mother had brought him to A&E. James was very distressed by all the bright lights and activity in A&E and started screaming and lashing out at anyone who went near him, despite his mother's attempts to calm him. His mother explained to a nurse that James is autistic and it was suggested that she take him into the relatives' room where it was quiet. The nurse arranged for James to be seen by a doctor as soon as possible and stayed with James throughout his treatment.

Further information and resources

Nursing Standard online autism resource centre

Our library catalogue, for journal articles and books

WidgitHealth multi-lingual easy read resources

Hospital Passport

Health information for autistic people and families 

Meeting needs and reducing distress: Guidance on the prevention and management of clinically related challenging behaviour in NHS settings, NHS Protect

Last reviewed 07 December 2016.