Parents of autistic children have high levels of dissatisfaction with the medical care provided to their children, while a majority of autistic persons report negative healthcare experiences. This is mostly due to a lack of autism knowledge in doctors which contributes towards this problem. In fact, most studies identify considerable awareness and knowledge gaps among medical students with regard to ASD. This demonstrates a need to incorporate a deep understanding of autism in medical students as well as the health and social care workforce. Starting in medical schools, at a time when students display an utmost openness and malleability in learning. After all, medical students are the future workforce of physicians in primary, secondary, tertiary, and highly specialized care centers. So it only makes sense that medical students should develop appropriate skills, competencies and understanding to deliver high-quality, patient-centric care to autistic adults and children.
As we celebrate World Autism Awareness Day today, here are some reasons why autism awareness should be a part of every St.Kitts medical school curriculum:
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) I s a complex, life-long neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a significant number of children worldwide. People with ASD show impairments in social communication and interaction, and have restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 36 children in the United States have ASD. This means that medical students are likely to encounter patients with autism in their clinical practice, which is why more emphasis needs to be placed on teaching medical students about autism if diagnosis and access to intervention are to be improved.
Early diagnosis and intervention can significantly improve outcomes for individuals with ASD. As medical professionals, it is important for students to recognize the signs and symptoms of autism and to refer patients for appropriate evaluation and intervention.
Autistic individuals are at an additional risk for health conditions as compared to neurotypicals, including mental health problems, such as anxiety-related disorders, intellectual disabilities, ADHD and sleep disorders, as well as physical health problems such as gastrointestinal conditions, motor difficulties, eating and elimination disorders, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and epilepsy. Medical students need to be able to recognize and manage these comorbidities and develop a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses both the ASD symptoms and the comorbidities. For example, individuals with ASD who also have anxiety may benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, whereas those with gastrointestinal problems may benefit from dietary changes and medication.
One of the key elements of providing effective medical care is extracting information from your patient. However, individuals with autism often have unique communication and sensory needs that require tailored approaches to healthcare. Many patients with this condition often struggle to communicate via traditional means or struggle to understand social cues, read emotions, and respond appropriately, while some have limited or no ability to produce verbal speech in any form. This is why medical students need to be able to communicate effectively with patients with autism and to provide care in a way that is sensitive to their individual needs.
Medical students have a role in advocating for individuals with autism and their families. By understanding the challenges faced by individuals with autism and their families, medical students can work to improve access to care, reduce stigma, and promote inclusion.
Last but not the least, Autism awareness doesn’t just help your patient, but is also about providing you with the tools you need to feel comfortable, capable, and secure while doing your job. For instance, a deep understanding of sensory issues and neurological differences can help a medical appointment progress smoothly. Healthcare providers can better support the patient by having the foresight to dim lights when safe to do so or offer a sensory distraction for younger children. Autism awareness training can be particularly helpful in situations such as when a child with autism is due for their vaccinations, so you will be more prepared and less at risk with the needle if the patient responds suddenly or becomes agitated. Similarly, familiarizing the patient with the equipment or allowing them to touch the equipment, builds trust and can go a long way in helping them feel more comfortable.