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Shore provides a better experience for children with Autism

by Narges Mohammadi

April marked Autism Acceptance Month and the one-year anniversary of Shore Medical Center’s Sensory Friendly Program at its Pediatric Care Center, an emergency room and inpatient unit just for children. 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. 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

Misti Martin, RN, has been a nurse in the Pediatric Care Center for six months, after spending the first two and one-half years of her Shore career in the adult emergency. 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 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

About 25 to 30 percent 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

“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

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