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The hospital, doctor’s or dentist’s office can be challenging for children with special needs. The medical environment can be overstimulating with loud noises, large crowds, unfamiliar smells and long waiting times in small areas. Also, going to the doctor often involves procedures or exams that require physical touch including band aids, shots, physical exams and blood pressure cuffs which can cause anxiety, fear, discomfort and frustration. When the environment and task is unfamiliar, overwhelming or scary children may have more difficulty following directions, expressing their wants or needs and participating.
Children with special needs may also have a difficult time understanding why they are going to the doctor or to the hospital. It does not often make sense why they are going to a big scary place, with strange people who may touch them or have procedures that may cause pain, all in an effort to make them healthy and feel better.
Below are some tips to prepare your child for a medical visit and information to share with the doctors and staff so that your child has a positive experience.
Before your visit
When scheduling an appointment, ask for the first appointment of the morning or first appointment after lunch to minimize waiting. Let the scheduler know if you think your child will have a difficult time at any point during the medical visit. If you are concerned about your child’s safety or the safety of others, ask to talk with a clinical manager or nurse. Maintaining a calm environment can help prevent overstimulation and have your child more available and ready to interact with the medical staff.
Preparing your child
There are a variety of ways that can help your child understand what to expect when going to the doctor. When your child knows what is going to happen this can reduce the anxiety and fear. Read books and practice common procedures (blood pressure, temperature, checking eyes/ears/throat) and talk about what is going to happen. You can also work with your child’s school or therapists to create visual schedules for the medical event. We have several autism resources at Children’s National that you can use.
What to bring
Bring a bag with your child’s favorite comfort item, distraction toys, tablet or other rewards for cooperating with requests. It may also help to have another adult (parent, therapist, close family friend) to help support or distract your child during their medical visit. If you child has a communication device, bring that as well.