Vaccinating Patients with Sensory Processing Disorders: Tips for Vaccinators

In 2020, 1 in 34 people were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S. ASD is a sensory processing disorder characterized by three key traits: challenges with communication, social skills, and repetitive behaviors. Because it is a sensory processing disorder, people with ASD experience and navigate the world differently from neurotypical people. 

People with ASD deserve the safety and protection that vaccinations provide. Unfortunately, some characteristics of ASD can make it difficult for patients to feel comfortable receiving vaccines. For example, people with ASD can be overly sensitive to pain or may struggle to trust people they don’t know well, like doctors and nurses. Additionally, because of heightened responses to pain and discomfort, people with ASD have difficulty controlling reactions to pain or stress. 

During the vaccination process, people with ASD and other processing disorders may:

  • Display physical aggression toward themselves or their environment
  • Lose balance and coordination
  • Become pale or very red
  • Pull away and verbally refuse, sometimes even running away
  • Cry or display signs of hysteria
  • Repeat words or phrases, sometimes while repeating specific motions or gestures

These responses can complicate the vaccination process for people with ASD. However, vaccines protect everyone, and people with ASD deserve the safety vaccines provide. There are ways to make the vaccination process more comfortable and accessible for people with ASD. 

Strategies to Prepare People with ASD for Vaccinations

When working with special populations, like people with sensory processing disorders and ASD, it is crucial for vaccinators to create a safe, calming environment. Strategies to make the vaccination process safer include environmental and personal behaviors vaccinators can engage in.

  • Make the environment sensory-friendly: Avoid harsh lights and dim them if possible. Consider covering distracting or patterned wall art to reduce visual clutter that can be overly stimulating. 
  • Introduce yourself: Build trust and rapport by telling them about yourself and asking them age-appropriate questions about themselves. 
  • Engage with the parent or guardian: Increase your trustability by referring to the patient’s parent or guardian. Additionally, ask the guardian more about the patient to better understand their needs.
  • Recognize each patient as an individual: Understanding each patient can help you create a more appropriate, individualized environment. Some people with ASD prefer more physical contact while others prefer less; some prefer more space and openness, while others can feel overwhelmed by that. Knowing each patient’s needs can help you adapt.
  • Be clear and direct: Narrate your actions. After introducing yourself, describe what is going to happen, why it will happen, and what you are doing. Be direct and honest; tell the patient that they will feel a pinch or some pain, but the shot will help them stay healthy.
  • Provide calming strategies: Coach your patient through calming activities. Great and simple calming activities include counting, deep breathing exercises, singing, or holding a stuffed animal or toy. Depending on the patient’s needs, you may also engage the guardian in calming strategies, such as having them hold the patient’s hand or do exercises with them.

Strategies to Avoid

It’s natural to want to relieve someone’s anxiety, especially if they have a sensory processing disorder like ASD. However, people with ASD often take comments or expressions literally, which can make some strategies confusing and more upsetting. Because of that, it’s important to avoid the following.

  • Sugar-coating: It feels natural to tell someone not to worry or that an injection won’t hurt. However, that’s untrue. Injections can and do hurt, and people with ASD want to know this information up-front.
  • Using abstract phrases: Comments like “I’m here to help” or “it’s going to be ok” can be confusing to people with ASD.
  • Making promises: Don’t make promises that you might not be able to follow up on. This can make it even more difficult for people with ASD to trust future practitioners.

Creating a safe, welcoming space for people with ASD can make the vaccination process easier and more manageable for the patient, their family, and vaccinators. Importantly, every individual has unique needs; get to know the patient through introductions and engagement with the patient and family. For more information and resources, contact the Autism Society Indiana.

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