Improving emergency room visits for kids with autism spectrum disorder: study

MANHASSET, NY – How health care workers interact with young patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – and their families – can turn an emergency room or urgent care experience into a positive one, according to a newly published study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Feinstein Institute for Medical Research researchers David L. Meryash, MD, and Sarah Kirsch found that to improve parent visit satisfaction, staff should focus on how they interact with patients with ASD – such as addressing the child directly and communicating with the child at a level appropriate to their cognitive and social development.

ASD is a developmental disability in which children and adults exhibit, to varying degrees, social challenges that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others. They can also display narrow interests and repetitive behaviors. The social challenges these individuals have – especially and including an inability to communicate their symptoms and reacting negatively to external stimuli – can make visits to the emergency room difficult for them and their families.

Dr. Meryash is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Northwell Health’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center who regularly cares for children with ASD and understands the challenges parents face. Ms. Kirsch is a student and Feinstein Institute researcher interested in a career in emergency medicine as well as being the sister of a young man with autism. Knowing that children with ASD have a more difficult time during health care encounters – emergency visits, in particular – and are more likely to visit an emergency room or urgent care facility than children without ASD, they wanted to find ways to make these experiences more positive.

“For any parent, taking a child to urgent care or the emergency room is stressful, but for a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, this stress can be amplified,” said Dr. Meryash. “In our study, we found that patient satisfaction doesn’t solely depend on the quality of their interactions with medical staff – it depends on interactions with all staff, from reception, to security, to lab technicians. Based on these results, we’re recommending that all emergency staff receive instruction on what Autism Spectrum Disorder is and be provided with helpful strategies for caring for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Dr. Meryash and colleagues surveyed 378 parents of children with ASD who made an emergency visit over the last three years through an anonymous questionnaire. Study participants answered questions and provided personal examples about what made their children’s experience positive or negative, and provided recommendations about what could be done to improve future visits. In addition to all-staff training, other recommendations included that health care staff should encourage parents to discuss their child’s uniqueness as soon as they arrive – what they like and dislike, what sensory stimuli typically bother them, and what calming techniques work for them. An important next step is for the health care professional who initially received this information to share it with the rest of the staff, so that the parents would not need to repeat themselves.

For more specifics on what urgent care facilities and emergency rooms can do to improve experiences for patients with ASD, click here.


About the Feinstein Institute

The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research is the research arm of Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider in New York. Home to 50 research laboratories and to clinical research throughout dozens of hospitals and outpatient facilities, the Feinstein Institute includes 4,000 researchers and staff who are making breakthroughs in molecular medicine, genetics, oncology, brain research, mental health, autoimmunity, and bioelectronic medicine – a new field of science that has the potential to revolutionize medicine. For more information about how we empower imagination and pioneer discovery, visit

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