For more than 45 years, people across the nation have recognized April as Autism Awareness Month and have taken steps to understand the varied aspects of this disorder.

Nurses, especially, are familiar with this condition as their varied patient load will have children and adults who may live with different degrees of autism. Known as the autism spectrum disorder, the conditions that typically affect those with autism can range from mild to severe.

According to the National Autism Association, autism is a bio-neurological development disability. And the number of children diagnosed with autism is increasing. According to NAA, one in 54 children is diagnosed with autism, a significant increase over the last two decades. And boys are four times as likely as girls to receive this diagnosis.

As a nurse, you’ll likely encounter many people throughout your career who live with autism’s different complexities that include difficulties with social interaction, with communication, and with different sensory issues. Many children with autism are nonverbal, so it will help your patients receive the best care if nursing efforts are coordinated with a larger medical team and with the family members and caregivers. Caregivers and families especially appreciate when their medical team takes extra steps to help their loved one, so raising your own awareness can have a huge ripple effect.

What are some things to keep in mind?

Look at the whole patient

According to NAA, autism often appears with other conditions that can make symptoms worse or even cause symptoms. Be alert to underlying medical issues in your patients including various psychological, gastrointestinal, sensory, and even autoimmune disorders. Treatment for any of these can help your patient’s whole health and sometimes decrease the severity of the autism symptoms as well.

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Learn about autism

Organizations like the NAA, the NIH’s Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, and various support and information organizations can offer insight into the complexities of what your patient and what families of those with autism manage on a daily basis. You’ll be able to access workshops on topics such as the mental health needs of those with autism or reports that address the progress being made in research on autism. The more you know, the better you can help your patients and their caregivers with managing the health spectrum.

Understand ways of managing

Training for understanding how autistic patients might react in your office or for a procedure will be essential for helping things progress. Of course, as with any patient, each person will react differently on any given day. But if you know the specific challenges or difficulties for a patient, or what is particularly helpful or soothing to that person, you will be able to give better care.

Become a resource

Families who live with an autistic child or adult may not have as much information as they need. You don’t need to become an expert on autism, but if you work with a high number of people who have it, learning about local resources can be a lifeline for patients and their caregivers. Caring for someone who has difficulty with social interaction and who might have other underlying health conditions can be isolating and exhausting, even as it’s rewarding. Knowing a few tips to pass on to patients and caregivers helps everyone.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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