During our focus groups people talked about the sensory challenges in both GP surgeries and hospitals, in particular in GP surgery waiting rooms. They identified the importance of staff understanding how autism and sensory processing difficulties might impact on their support needs. While some people reported that they were able to have accommodations built into their care plan (such as being able to bring their own food into the hospital to eat), others identified that staff appeared to find it difficult to understand the negative emotional impact of potential sensory triggers and how these could make their stay more challenging.
There are a range of potentially challenging sensory inputs in health care settings. For example, people identified that the brightness and sound of fluorescent lighting can be overwhelming as well as food/chemical smells and the level of constant background noise which can make it harder to focus on a specific person or sound. There can be an overwhelming amount of visual information such as boards on the walls about different research studies or medical conditions.
Health care settings can be unpredictable, such as not knowing how long you will have to wait in a space with negative sensory input. These unknown delays (such as waiting past an expected appointment time) can raise people’s anxiety and make these spaces more challenging.
People identified that locations which support non-verbal communication methods (such as being able to sign in via a touch screen or being able to write down information) were often more accessible. Other helpful accommodations included being able to access a quieter, separate room while waiting for an appointment. During the disruptions caused by COVID-19, waiting rooms may have less crowded seating which can also make these spaces easier to tolerate.
Questions for businesses and organisations to think about:
- In a waiting room, do you have a quieter space that people can use? How can people access this space? Are they able to request to use this in advance?
- If there is no separate space, do they have to wait in your location for their appointment? If their appointment time is running late, is it possible for them to be able to go to another nearby location and be messaged (e.g. by text/phone call) when they need to return?
- Are individuals able to choose their communication preference? For example, are they able to check in via a touch screen or express themselves non-verbally such as by using writing, sign language/Makaton or other communication strategies?
- Do you have a way that individuals who visit your space can indicate whether they may need additional support for their sensory needs? Can staff recognize this? Is it possible to give this information in advance such as part of a health plan?
- If there are unavoidable changes to someone’s appointment time, is it possible to indicate this so that someone is aware approximately how much longer they will be waiting?
- Have staff received training about autism and sensory processing difficulties? Are staff aware of the potential accommodations they can make to support autistic people?
- Have you discussed a person’s sensory needs with them and identified any adjustments that could be made to make their stay more comfortable? For example, could they be in a location on the ward further away from the kitchens if they are finding certain food smells more challenging? Can these be included within any health plans so staff are aware of them in advance?