For My Son with Autism, Relief in an ER Visit


On a January night several years ago, my family and I found ourselves heading to the emergency room at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine.

My oldest son, Sam, had come home from the first day of competition at the Chisholm Challenge, a therapeutic horseback riding competition for equestrians with disabilities, after he began passing blood. It was alarming. We planned on skipping the second day of competition after seeing the doctor first thing in the morning.

But he woke me up around 2 a.m. the morning before shaking uncontrollably and was a little panicked.

Sam had just turned 21, so the pediatrician was still his primary care doctor. I phoned the nurse on-call and she instructed me to bring him in immediately.

As we headed down the freeway towards the hospital, my mind was flooded with concerns. A trip to the emergency room is a big deal, and for Sam, who has autism, it is an even bigger concern.

We’d been to Baylor Grapevine’s rehabilitation center before to meet with an occupational therapist who was teaching Sam how to drive, but this visit would be very different.

A flurry of questions ran through my mind: Would the waiting room be full of upset people? Would the sound of ambulances nearby distress him? What about the staff? Would they be stand-offish?

I didn’t have time to help them prepare the way I had for other doctors, dentists and health caregivers.

All of those worries came flooding back when I saw that researchers had come out with a new training and protocol measures for emergency room personnel who find themselves caring for a person with autism.

For us, thankfully, the nurse understood Sam from the start. She adapted quickly, and everyone who followed after her knew how to take their time in his care, be calm and to explain each step.

We were lucky too. It was a quiet night, and by the time we had arrived at the hospital, Sam had stopped shuddering.

The visit wasn’t much different from one at a doctor’s office, except for reams of more paperwork and the occasional paramedic rushing down the hallway.

I caught a glimpse of his urine sample, which appeared to be dark brown, and another nurse saw my reaction. “We’ve seen way worse,” she told me.

We parents can be a little battle-weary, so I appreciated that more than she probably realized.

The good folks at Autism Speaks offered these quick tips from research for emergency room personnel, and we remain grateful that the folks at Baylor Grapevine already knew them.

  • Usher patients to a quiet, more dimly lit room with less equipment.
  • Avoid multi-step questions and stick to those that require only a “yes” or “no” response.
  • Communicate with the caregiver or family member, if one accompanies the patient, to get an effective medical history.
  • Keep your voice calm, and minimize words and touch.
  • Let patients see and touch the instruments and materials that will be placed on their bodies.
  • Use a warm blanket to calm down the patient, and administer mild doses of medication, rather than physical restraints to quiet a patient.

What started off as a frightening night ended as a much more calm one. Again, I’m thankful for those who take the time to understand the needs of patients with autism. It truly makes the difference.

This blog post was contributed by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, the first Mayborn prize winner for literary nonfiction and blogger about her life with Sam at the Family Room.

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For My Son with Autism, Relief in an ER Visit