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Brenda Kosky Deskin
BY Brenda Kosky Deskin

10 Ways To Help Prepare Your Special Needs Child For A Hospital Emergency Visit

We do our best to avoid the hospital emergency room by taking all possible safety precautions and trying to keep our family members in good health. But sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions, this just isn’t possible.

According to a recent study, children on the Autism Spectrum are nine times more likely to visit an emergency room than their neurotypical peers. And while no one enjoys the experience of going to the hospital, such visits can be especially traumatic for people with Autism or other cognitive challenges.

Here are some practical tips you can follow now that can make things go as smoothly as possible for your child with special needs, should the need to visit an emergency room arise in the future:

1. Books

Read books to your child about visiting the hospital. Here are a few you may want to consider:

Maggie and the Emergency RoomMaggie and the Emergency Room

Maggie and the Emergency Room provides tips on safety and injury prevention, as well as information about what happens in a hospital’s emergency room, highlight a look at Maggie’s trip to the ER after a bicycle accident, in a book developed by the American Medical Association.

My Trip To The Hospital

When Little Critter breaks his leg in a soccer game, he has to make his first trip to the hospital. Follow brave Little Critter as he rides in an ambulance, meets the doctor, and gets his first X-ray and his first cast. This book is written by renowned children’s author and illustrator Mercer Mayer.

Franklin Goes To The Hospital

Franklin’s shell has cracked, and he needs to be a brave turtle when it’s time to go to the hospital. This book is part of the “Franklin the Turtle” series written by Paulette Bourgeois.

2. Social Stories

Social Stories are an excellent way to help alleviate anxiety caused by the unknown and are therefore ideal in helping you prepare your child for a visit to the hospital. There are many social story apps available that enable you to create stories for your child that can easily be customized to his or her own unique reading and cognitive levels and the situations and healthcare facilities in which he or she may find himself.

I’d suggest taking pictures of the actual emergency department you would be most likely to visit and including them in your story. With some advanced notice, the hospital staff might be happy to accommodate you by giving you the opportunity to photograph their staff and various medical instruments and pieces of equipment like x-ray machines and gurneys. Using real photos is ideal in that they can most accurately convey to your child what a new environment really looks like well in advance of him actually being there.

3. Teach Hospital Language

For non-verbal children, provide augmentative communication vocabulary that is hospital-relevant so they can express themselves to the best of their ability. If you choose to make your own medical communication boards, you can find lots of visual symbols online by performing a Google search on the words “medical clip-art”.

4. Educate Hospital Workers

Approach your local hospital’s administration department ask them if they would be interested in introducing their clinical staff to The Hospital Communication Book, a free downloadable resource that provides clear and helpful advice for parents and medical personnel alike on how to communicate effectively with patients who have special needs.

5. Explain The Pain

Familiarize your child with the Faces Pain Scale. It can be an invaluable tool for your child not only in a hospital emergency room, but in pretty much any setting or situation. Take advantage of every opportunity you can to use it from a small bump on the knee to a painful stomachache, to familiarize him with how it works. Downloadable PDFs of the scale are available in many different languages.

6. Prepare Your Child for Blood Work

Check out this excellent parents’ guide entitled Taking the Work Out Of Blood Work: Helping Your Child With ASD, published by Autism Speaks. It is full of helpful tips and information. While the guide is geared to individuals on the Autism Spectrum, its use can easily extend to individuals who have other cognitive or developmental challenges.

7. Keep It Positive

Whenever you speak of doctors or hospitals with your child, talk about them in a favorable way, describing how they make people feel better.

8. Teaching Toys

Use play as a teaching tool. Buy a toy doctor’s kit and play “doctor” or “hospital” with your child from time to time. Pretend to listen to his heart and let him listen to yours. Have him practice staying super still for 10 seconds while he has a pretend x-ray. Use dolls or stuffed animals as the patient and medical personnel and go through all of the steps of visiting an emergency room from arrival – perhaps even by ambulance – to returning home.

Think about what favorite toys and activities you would grab and bring to the hospital with you to keep your child engaged while waiting or to distract him during moments of pain or discomfort.

9. Familiarize With Medical Equipment

Familiarize your child with what it feels like having various types of medical equipment used on him. If you can, purchase a real blood pressure cuff so your child can get accustomed to the strange sensation of it inflating around his arm. We have used a clothespin to simulate the slight pinching feeling associated with an oxygen monitor that gets put onto a patient’s finger.

10. Avoid The Temptation To Lie

Don’t tell your child a needle won’t hurt when you know it will.  For example, if he is going to get a needle, explain that there will be an “ouch” but after he counts to five, the ouch will will be gone. Lying will only lead to you losing your credibility and his trust, making it that much more difficult to prepare him for other potentially difficult events and medical procedures in the future.

So…. What are your hospital visit tips?

Brenda Kosky Deskin

Written on August 6, 2013 by:

Brenda Kosky Deskin is the parent of a child with Autism and Founder and Editor of, a one-of-a-kind website and online directory dedicated to providing vital resources and information to the international Autism community.