The days preceding your child’s hospital or doctor visit and the actual appointment can be extremely stressful, particularly if your child has an autism spectrum disorder or a physical need requiring surgery. But there are steps that you as a parent can take to ease the fear for your child.
“Whether your child is scheduled for an appointment, surgery or outpatient procedure, preparation is the key,” advises Amy Smith, a child life specialist at Medical City Children’s Hospital. “Be ready to provide information to the medical staff. Share what helps your child cope, special interests, likes and dislikes, learning style, verbal development, level of eye contact, and past sources of stress.”
Schedule a Pre-Visit
Licensed Psychologist Dr. Lisa Elliott of Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth recommends scheduling a meeting with your child’s physician prior to the child’s visit. “This is important for several reasons,” she says. “It allows you to see the office, learn how appointments are scheduled, what entertainment options are available; and it gives you the opportunity to discuss your concerns.” She also advises scheduling your child’s appointment early in the day, preferably the physician’s first appointment, for the best chance of avoiding wait time.
Use What Works
Cinnamon Boyle’s son is moderately autistic. “Dylan did not speak before he was 4 years old, so visiting the pediatrician was especially stressful,” she says. “I found it helpful to stick with a regimen and doctor. Dylan is 10 years old now; and the office, staff and doctor are familiar to him. Before a visit, we create a picture book that is all about him, where he is going and why. When we arrive for the appointment, the staff already knows him and his particular needs, and is always ready to assist.”
Elliott agrees that it is often productive for ASD children to use social skills storyboards with both pictures and words to answer the “who, what, where, when and why” questions. And for children who work well with a visual schedule, she suggests preparing for an upcoming appointment by creating a timetable or calendar.
Amy Wood’s 10-year-old daughter was born with Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, a rare disorder of bone growth, and has had multiple surgeries since she turned 3 years old. “We have learned to rely on our child specialist at Scottish Rite Hospital who, by having fun and asking questions on Lanie’s level, is able to determine how she is feeling and her level of stress.” After her last surgery, Lanie spent the greater part of a year in a body cast. Shortly after it was removed, she suffered a broken femur in an accident at school. “For the first time, there was no question about her fear,” says Woods. “During her MRI, I asked what she wanted most and she replied, ‘A trip to Disney World.’ Months later, the body cast came off and the family went to Disney World.
Your doctor may recommend additional resources to help with a hospital stay or procedure including, as in Lanie’s case, the assistance of a child life specialist, a professional trained to minimize stress in medical settings, prepare children in a developmentally appropriate way, facilitate coping and promote normal growth and development through play opportunities.
Hold a Debriefing
After an appointment, Smith suggests having a "debriefing" session with your child. “It can be empowering for your child to recognize their accomplishment of getting through the visit or procedure. The ability to draw from previous experiences in which your child coped effectively or mastered a medical challenge can be helpful in future experiences.
Remember the Goody Bag & Maintain Your Composure
“Prepare a bag of snacks, sensory items, toys, novelty items, and any other reinforcements that your child loves,” suggests Elliott. And “Finally, as with any child who has a tantrum, maintaining your composure and staying calm will help to alleviate your child’s fears and anxiety.”