For people on the autism spectrum, simple healthcare tasks such as routine vaccinations or annual check-ups can be a challenge.
“The sounds and bright lights of a doctor's office coupled with potential communication challenges may make it difficult for an individual on the autism spectrum —and accommodations for those who live with sensory issues commonly associated with ASD
rarely exist,” says Dr. Colleen Allen, president and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan
(AAoM). “Their response to sensory stimuli can include both over-responsiveness and under-responsiveness depending on the stimuli and the individual.”
Sensory rooms in doctor’s offices can improve the experience of vaccinations and wellness checks for ASD families. By providing a sense of calm and comfort, the patient is less likely to feel overwhelmed by the sounds of other patients, fluorescent lights, and other sensory stimuli. Sensory rooms allow children with ASD to self-regulate their behaviors and make it easier for them to engage with healthcare staff throughout the visit with as little stress as possible.
Colleen Allen, AAoM
“Access to sensory rooms in a doctor’s office will ensure that every autistic child is receiving the care they need in a space that is comfortable and minimizes stress, whether it be for routine vaccinations or regular office visits,” Allen says.
Sensory rooms are designed with mood lighting that covers or dims lights or uses lava lamps as well as sensory toys — like stress balls, stuffed animals, or Silly Putty — soft, soothing music, and noise-canceling headphones.
Corner Health Center
in Ypsilanti, Michigan is a notable example of how offering a sensory room is actually a necessity for ASD families. Its sensory room, which was designed and funded in conjunction with AAoM, offers a comfortable soft bean bag chair, noise-canceling headphones, dim lighting, and sensory kits filled with sensory toys and other items. The Corner Health team is confident that the room will make it easier for families living with autism to prioritize their children’s vaccines and health checkups with less stress.
Playing with fidget toys can help a child function effectively or engage with others.
“These calm, low-lit rooms offer a space for isolation and relaxation for those who are feeling overwhelmed,” Allen says. “Sensory rooms can be found in schools, workplaces, and more recently in doctor’s offices and public health clinics.”
In addition to Corner Health, AAoM is also collaborating with Detroit Health Department
, Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services
, Ingham County Health Department
, and others to make sure families across the state have access to the safest, most accommodating healthcare facilities possible.
Each individual with autism is unique and requires a different level of stimulation to help relieve the stress brought on by a doctor’s appointment, vaccination or wellness check. Sensory rooms are one effective accommodation for addressing their unique and varied needs.
Both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity create barriers to communication
For the person living with ASD, hypersensitivity
— over-responsiveness — can overload the way their brain responds when they are exposed to too many stimuli in their environment, both over time or all at once. Children living with autism may cover their ears when a song or noise is too loud. This is one sign of hypersensitivity.
Conversely, hyposensitivity is under-reaction to stimuli in the environment. For example, seeking excessive stimulation by playing with fidget toys or engaging in constant movements. These provide the child with critical input they need to function effectively or engage with others.
“Most people on the autism spectrum can experience both hypo- and hyper-sensitivity — and these may fluctuate depending on the situation,” Allen says. “A certain texture or sound may be too much for them one day and the next day it’s just the right stimulation they need.”
In addition to overstimulation, individuals with autism run into other challenges that create barriers to getting vaccinations and health checks. A 2016 study found
that lack of training about these challenges among health professionals has made doctor's visits more complicated for people living with ASD. The study also found that ASD families feel health professionals don’t understand that hypo- and hyper-sensitivity come alongside autism.
A trusted resource for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families
AAoM understands that misinformation about vaccine safety and effectiveness has spread rapidly over the past several years while the need to ensure that families stay healthy has never been more important. The misinformation that caused some Michiganders to avoid COVID vaccination has spilled over into other vaccinations, leaving rates of children without other routine childhood vaccination
higher than before the pandemic. AAoM is committed to providing the most current, verifiable, and validated facts to help parents make vaccination and other healthcare choices for their families and loved ones.
“Thousands of Michigan families view AAoM as a trusted partner and source of information to help alleviate their concerns and voices in the fight for disability rights,” Allen says. “AAoM has built a world-class team of experienced advocates and professionals to support people on the autism spectrum, identify pathways, and bring light to the challenges they face.”
AAoM helps raise expectations and expand opportunities for Michigan’s estimated one in 36 children diagnosed
as living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). AAOM works to develop solutions that help people in Michigan access basic care, navigate their civil and legal rights, and explore appropriate education and employment opportunities. Michiganders in the autism community of all ages who need help accessing information and resources while navigating an often-fractured system of support, the Autism Alliance of Michigan stands by ready to help. To learn more, visit www.aaomi.org
Colleen Allen photo and logo courtesy AAoM.
Photos of sensory room and fidget toy by iStock Photo and are representative of but not actually of the sensory room at Corner Health.