San Antonio, TX – For a child, a trip to the emergency room can be scary and intimidating. New sights, smells and sounds add to the already delicate situation that brought the child to the hospital in the first place. These stressors are especially difficult for a child with autism spectrum disorder or for a child with a sensory need. This was the case for Sandra Obregon’s son, Ernesto, who has autism. When he was 5–years-old, Ernesto required a trip to a local pediatric emergency room.

”I had to explain to the nurse that he had autism, but she still was not able to work with him, and had to restrain him to take his vitals,” Obregon recalled. Her son had eaten “berries” that were found outside, which caused concern for poisoning. Due to the overstimulation of the environment, Ernesto would not drink the activated charcoal cleanse. “We knew he would not drink it on his own so they decided to do it through his nose. All I did was sit in a corner and cry while three adults restrained him through this process,” Obregon said.

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, Methodist Children’s Hospital is proud to announce it is now the first sensory-friendly pediatric emergency room in the South Texas region. The sensory–friendly ER program’s goal is to avert and avoid over-stimulation so that the proper treatment can be provided to the patient.

“Each child has their own special sensory needs and when these needs are not met, this can create feelings of frustration for all involved,” said certified Child Life Specialist, Charlesy Crocker. “Kids comply and cope better with medical procedures when these needs are taken into account.”

Obregon is excited for the safe and calm experience the program will provide children and their loved ones. “We can now go to a setting where we are understood immediately by the medical personnel, with less bright lights and loud noises. Now, we can all better focus on the ailment or injury, and on the child getting the medical care they need, with less stress for everyone. This is truly life-changing!” Obregon said.

It was important to make the new sensory-friendly emergency room customizable to each and every patient’s unique need. Methodist Children’s ER staff members only introduce items to the patient’s room or care plan that will be beneficial to him or her.

“Our goal is to provide the best practice for all children. One child might seek sensory stimulation, whereas the next child is sensory avoidant. If we were to fill a room with items that speak to sensory stimulation, this would greatly hinder the sensory avoidant child’s peace of mind and experience,” Crocker said.

Some of the steps taken to implement the new program include:

  • Establishing sensory-friendly patient rooms throughout the emergency department that have been painted pale blue, which is a calming color
  • Providing a certified Child Life Specialist in conjunction with a sensory-trained pediatric ER nurse at bedside
  • Adding a dimmer function to light switches to lower the brightness to the child’s comfort level
  • Shifting the monitors to ring at the nurse’s station instead of the patient room
  • Supplying softer gowns, or providing the option of leaving the child in their own clothing
  • Designing a menu of more than 20 sensory-friendly items that are customizable for each patient’s specific sensory need, which includes, but is not limited to:
  • Soothing projectors that project different patterns of light on the ceiling
  • Noise-reducing headphones
  • Weighted blankets
  • Beads
  • Sensory circles
  • Fidget spinners
  • Fiber optic lights
  • Adopting a “sensory passport” process for future ER visits, which allows staff to pull up the patient’s medical chart and easily identify the child’s sensory needs and tools used from prior visits

If a parent or guardian does not already know that their child has a sensory need, the hospital’s Emergency Room staff is trained to recognize whether a child might benefit from a sensory-friendly room and its offerings.

Knowing that the need for this type of care is great, the hospital hopes to expand this program and establish sensory–friendly patient rooms throughout Methodist Children’s Hospital and at its freestanding ER locations in the near future.

Learn more about pediatric emergency care at Methodist Children's Hospital.

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