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Taking Autism to the Doctor



This article was contributed by Judy Smithmyer, an ASNC Autism Resource Specialist in the Greensboro region and mom to a daughter with autism.

Attending medical appointments with our children can be difficult, but when our child has autism, we can face a whole new set of challenges. Preparation is the key to making a doctor’s visit less stressful, not just for our children, but for us, too. A little planning can go a long way in reducing anxiety and stress. Here are some tips and strategies:

Plan ahead

  • Call ahead when making a new visit with a medical provider. Explain that your child has autism and tell them about any special characteristics your child may have, such as sensory issues with lights or smells, difficulty waiting, special fears, etc.
  • Ask for the least amount of wait time for your appointment. I learned years ago to ask for the last appointment of the morning or the first appointment in the afternoon.
  • Write down your concerns ahead of time. I’ve found that I often get sidetracked once I’m face-to-face with the medical provider. If you list concerns and give them to the nurse prior to the doctor coming in, the doctor can review them before coming in.
  • If it can be arranged and your child has a school nurse who can accommodate, ask for your child to “practice” sitting on the examination table, having temperature and blood pressure taken, and measuring height and weight. This could be videotaped for a social story that could be reviewed with the child prior to any medical appointment. Again, reviewing those expectations ahead of time reduces anxiety.
  • If your child does have issues with anxiety, then provide coping skills. Teach calming strategies ahead of time and practice them in non-stressful situations. This can provide a sense of security for your child.
  • If your child can handle knowing ahead of time that he or she will be seeing a doctor, put it on their calendar of events. For some children, you might need to wait until the morning of the appointment to prevent anxiety.
  • Use social stories to teach expectations. Do2Learn has printable stories/schedules for medical appointments.
  • TEACCH has a great article on using visuals to prepare an individual for a medical appointment.
  • If your child must be admitted to the hospital and you have special circumstances you would like to communicate to personnel, ask to speak with the Patient Advocate.

What to bring

  • Take someone with you to the appointment to assist with your child. This will allow you more time to speak with the medical provider and take notes if needed.
  • Bring a list of your child’s medications – including any herbal supplements– and who prescribed them.
  • Bring your child’s portable communication system. Using a “First/Then” system can be helpful for situations in which the child may need to receive a “non-preferred” procedure, such as an immunization. Example: First: Immunization/Then: reward of choice.
  • I used to “model” for my daughter what the nurse needed to do to her before the nurse did it to my daughter. This was helpful because then my daughter could see what to expect and she wasn’t so anxious.
  • Bring a “community bag” with you. This would include: your child’s communication system, items to keep your child occupied while waiting such as an iPad or iPod, a snack and/or drink, a change of clothes, and sensory toys or fidgets.

Attitude is everything

  • If your child has a difficult time at a doctor’s visit, try looking at situations in which your child was successful. Maybe your child was able to ride the elevator without pressing ALL the buttons. Focus on what your child was able to do and move forward from there.
  • Become friendly with the office staff. I learned a long time ago that if I was proactive and explained to the office staff about my daughter’s needs, they were much more willing to accommodate us. I also have sent many thank-you notes after visits and medical procedures, to office and hospital staff, thanking them for their understanding and willingness to accommodate our needs. People appreciate it when you acknowledge they are trying their best in a difficult situation, and they are more likely to try their best again.

Judy Smithmyer can be reached at or 336-333-0197, ext. 1402.

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