Easy on the Senses: Inova Loudoun Rolls Out Specialized Approach for Autisic Patients

The benefits of a year of research and training on the special needs of pediatric patients with sensory processing disorder were unveiled at Inova Loudoun Hospital on Friday.

Visits to the emergency room can be scary for any child, but can be particularly unsettling for kids with SPD. It’s a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses and is common in children diagnosed with autism. Sounds, smells and chaotic motions can be painful or overwhelming.

Dr. Jill McCabe and her staff at the Children’s Emergency Room at the Lansdowne hospital have a new understanding of these patients’ needs and a new approach to treating kids whose cognitive disabilities make is harder for them to understand their environment and to be more easily frightened in strange surroundings.

“We want to work and partner with the families in the communities and make sure those tough times are great—as great as they can possibility be,” McCabe said during briefing with reporters to explain the new program.

Dr. Barbara Jill McCabe, medical director of the Inova Loudoun Hospital Pediatric Emergency Department.

“They are some of our most challenging patients to treat,” McCabe said. “We have felt kind of helpless to not have the best tools to take care of them.”

The credit for the initiative goes largely to Allyson Halverson, the department’s certified child life specialist who identified the need and found strong support from the hospital staff to find a better way to accommodate those patients.

Halverson built a partnership with George Washington University and Dr. Kevin Pelphrey, the internationally renowned neuroscientist who is leading establishment of the $5 million Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus in Ashburn. She also reached out to the Arc of Loudoun and its Aurora School for special needs students at the Paxton Campus in Leesburg.

Allyson Halverson, Inova Loudoun’s Pediatric Emergency Department’s certified child life specialist, explains some of the new tools available to help patients with sensory disorders.

Based the recommendations of those experts, the ER has established new protocols for SPD patients at soon as step through the doors—even before.

Patients will find a quieter waiting area and then a quicker move to a treatment room that has been cleared of unneeded equipment and wires. The lights will be dimmed. There might be a bubble tube with floating fish by the bed, or a small trampoline for those who need to stay active, or a collection of familiar toys. The goal is the keep the stress level down.

Doctors and nurses will be looking to parents to understand the needs of each child.

“We understand that the parents are the experts on their children,” Halverson said.

Recognizing that, the staff has posted intake and assessment forms on the department’s website. Parents can share information on their child’s needs and preferences that can be added to their medical records. Using those tools, when their files are pulled up at the admissions stage, the medical team will already know how to help make the visit go more smoothly.

Halverson said one of her biggest concerns is when she hears parents of autistic children say they avoid medical treatment because of the challenges their children face in the hospital environments. She hopes the new program will give parents more confidence that the hospital can better handle their child’s emotional needs.

“We wanted families feel safe bring their kids in. We want kids to feel safe coming in here,” she said. “We want to be a place where families know you can bring your children here and we know how to take care of them and we’ll take it slow and we’ll do everything we can to make it as positive of an experience possible.”

McCabe said the goal of the pediatric ER staff has always been to provide the best care. “This just brings it to a whole new level,” she said.

Melissa Heifetz, the interim executive director at The Arc of Loudoun, said she teared up listening to the hospital staff talk about the “amazing” effort during the press briefing.

“It seems like you really get it,” Heifetz said.

A sign in Inova Loudoun’s Pediatric ER alerts patients to the availability of special accommodations.

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