One Year of Providing a Better Patient Experience for Children with Autism

This month, Shore Medical Center's Pediatric Care Center celebrates the first anniversary of its Sensory Friendly Pediatric Program. Shore developed the program in partnership with the Atlantic County Special Services School District to help children on the autism spectrum receive the best care possible when they come to the hospital. Looking back on this past year, the program has been a great success!

Going to the hospital can be a nerve-wracking experience for anyone, but for children on the spectrum, the sights, sounds and feelings can be especially overwhelming because of how they process the world around them. Coupled with the pain or discomfort they may be experiencing due to their medical emergency, it can be a traumatizing time for the child and family and the staff providing care. Shore needed to educate its team about the unique needs of children on the spectrum while also creating an environment that helped them become calm enough to get care safely. 

The sensory-friendly program at Shore was made possible thanks to training and guidance from autism experts at Atlantic County Special Services School District and through a generous donation from an anonymous family. Shore converted one of its pediatric patient rooms into a sensory-friendly room with their support. It features a colorful remote-controlled bubble wall, projector, tactile wall, weighted blankets, communication devices, and a closet full of sensory toys for children to choose from to help calm and distract them. Atlantic County Special Services School provides ongoing training so that all of Shore’s staff in the Pediatric Care Center are fully educated on how to best help children on the spectrum.

Misti Martin, RN, has been a nurse in the Pediatric Care Center for six months, after spending the first 2.5 years of her Shore career in the adult ER. She is proud to work at Shore, where she has the tools needed to care for children with autism as best she can. 

"Even with all the training in the world, nurses typically aren't kept up-to-date with how to care for someone on the autism spectrum properly," Martin said. "Shore's sensory-friendly program and training have helped take away many unknowns. This is new territory for some of us; we don't care for patients with autism on a daily basis. With these children, you have to think completely outside of the box. Having that out-of-the-box equipment and resources to help you is very beneficial." 

Martin described an experience she had recently caring for an older child on the spectrum and how the program helped. When he arrived, the child was already feeling very stressed and didn't want anyone to look at him or touch him. He had a medical issue that was causing him pain, so understandably he was upset. He didn't want to see any of the medical staff on the way in, so a friend walked him into the room to help him get acclimated. 

"We allowed him to explore the room and become comfortable with his surroundings. He looked at the bubble wall, touched the tactile wall, went through the drawers, and we then got him some of the sensory toys, and he was able to calm himself down with those," Martin said. "We also gave him a weighted blanket, and once he was able to feel that he had some control over his surroundings and he was more relaxed, we were able to initiate care." 

Martin's shift was over before the patient was discharged, but she heard later that he was a completely different person when he left. He had the care he needed and he was calm. 

Jim Hillis, RN, BSN, MHA, CCRN, Assistant Nurse Manager of the Emergency Department and Pediatric Care Center, says that the Sensory Friendly Pediatric Program has already benefited many children on the autism spectrum since its opening. 

“Our main focus as medical professionals is to do whatever we have to do to get our patients the care they need and how they need it. We are trained to identify when children might benefit from our sensory-friendly program. I'm proud that we've been able to help families feel comfortable bringing their child to Shore for care and that we can help children safely get the care they need." 

Martin shares the same pride. She said one of the best parts of this experience has been seeing the children and parents light up when they realize Shore has all the tools to help their child get care safely. 

"At first, a child will come in and tense up, but then we escort them to the sensory room and show them what we have, and it's like a lightbulb goes off. You start pulling out all of these familiar sensory tools, and the parents are so relieved, like, 'Oh my goodness, you get us!' It's been a beautiful and very rewarding change," Martin said. 

One of the features Martin is especially excited about is the communication iPad. It contains an app that staff can use to communicate with nonverbal children. Approximately 25-30% of children with autism are nonverbal, but many learn to communicate through pictures. Staff can use both printed picture books and the iPad app, which was programmed by Atlantic County Special Services School speech therapists, with plans for the team at Shore to program it with words and actions they will need in the future. To view a video of Martin showing how the iPad app works, click here.

"When a child can express how they feel, or what they need, or when we can communicate with them in a way they are used to, as they do in school, they get excited. Now they can tell us, ‘Hey, I want this!’ You can see the excitement when they're pointing to the pictures because they know what you're asking them, and they have a way to respond." 

Martin wants all parents of children with autism to know about the sensory-friendly program and how committed she and all her colleagues are to providing the best care that they can.

"We're here to help in any way possible. We have a lot of tools that we can use, and we will do anything to make your child more comfortable and able to get the care they need."

To learn more about Shore's Pediatric Care Center and Sensory Friendly Pediatric Program, click here.