Autism Awareness Month: How to Communicate with Your ASD Patient


Just as the name suggests, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a spectrum condition. There are individuals at one end of the spectrum who are unable to speak, and there are highly gifted individuals at the other end of the spectrum. Then, there are individuals who land somewhere in the middle. During your career as a nurse, you will almost certainly have an ASD patient, as 1 in every 68 children are on the spectrum. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, you owe it to yourself to take the time to learn how to properly interact with and communicate with autistic patients. The following information will make the interaction and treatment less stressful for both you and your patient.

The Communication Struggles of Autism

The word “autism” stems from the Greek word “autos,” which translates to mean “self.” Children on the spectrum often appear to live in their own private bubble. ASD children prefer to play alone and are not big fans of social interaction. It is difficult for a child on the spectrum to develop language skills, including understanding what other people say. It is also difficult for autistic children to handle nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, hand gestures, and even eye contact.

As a health provider, the vast differences from one ASD patient to the next make your job extremely challenging. Some children struggle to speak, while others obsess over every detail of their favorite things. Even for individuals with autism who can speak, they still sometimes struggle with using language and social skills effectively. This makes it difficult to process what they feel, what they hear, and what you say to them. For example, if you give someone on the spectrum verbal instructions, they may not understand the instructions well enough to act on them. It is common for parents and healthcare providers to think a child might have a hearing issue before they receive an official autism diagnosis because of the lack of responsiveness.

Some individuals with autism struggle with body language and vocal tones as well. As you know, body language is the second form of communication you use to convey a message to someone. There are even some individuals on the spectrum who describe making eye contact as a painful act.

Whether your ASD patient is a child or an adult, communication difficulties can make it more difficult to do your job. By understanding the communication struggles that these patients often face, you can take the necessary steps to provide your patient with the care he or she deserves.

Handling ASD Patients

When an ASD patient comes into your clinic or hospital, it is a good idea to get them out of the waiting room and into a procedure room as soon as possible. Individuals on the spectrum find waiting rooms uncomfortable and overwhelming because of the crowds, noises, and bright lights. So, if you can move your patient to a quiet and private room with dim lights and minimal medical equipment, it can be easier for them to remain calm while they wait for medical care. Many ASD caretakers can confirm that a long wait in a waiting room can make the appointment or treatment even more challenging because the patient is already stressed out before even meeting with the healthcare provider.

If there is a caretaker present, do not be afraid to ask how the ASD patient communicates. Caretakers and parents expect this question. In fact, they prefer it. This provides you with a baseline of how you need to interact with the patient to provide them with proper care. You should also ask for suggestions on how to interact with the patient, especially when treating an ASD child. Remember, the parent (or caretaker) is with the patient 24 hours a day. They know the right and wrong way to handle the individual. A caretaker or parent is your best resource.

Slow, Short, and to the Point

Always limit the number of words you use. Talk slower than you normally would, and keep things short and to the point. Repeat and stress important information while using simple gestures such as pointing. For patients who have only recently started to speak, you may need to use single words to hold their attention. For patients who do not speak, you may need to use pictures to help them understand.

With some patients, you must pause between words and sentences to provide time for them to process what you said. Going to the doctor is an overwhelming experience for a lot of individuals on the spectrum, as it is not part of their normal routine. Make sure you are patient and give them time to process their thoughts into words. Your flexibility and patience will make the procedure less anxiety-inducing for them.

Always approach an ASD patient as if they understand you. This is the simple act of showing your patient the respect they deserve. In most cases, the patient – or their caretaker – will inform you if certain extra steps need are necessary to cater to their needs.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to remember is to avoid figurative language such as idiomatic expressions and sarcasm. Individuals on the spectrum are extremely literal. They have a difficult time “reading between the lines.” If you keep things short, simple, sweet, and to the point, you have nothing to worry about.

Going to the doctor or the hospital is an overwhelming experience for anyone. Unfortunately, there is an extra thick layer of anxiety for someone on the spectrum. Take the time to learn a few things about autism and prepare yourself for the best way to interact with a patient on the spectrum. Just remember that everyone on the spectrum is different and deserves the same treatment as everyone else.

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