Bridging the Gap Between Autism & Healthcare Providers

By Anita Lesko, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, Autism Advocate, Author

I am a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist for the past 27 years.  I’ve been working full time ever since graduating from Columbia University in 1988 with my Master’s in Nurse Anesthesia. I specialize in anesthesia for neurosurgery, organ transplants, and orthopedic joint replacements.

Oh, yes, there’s something else I’d like you to know!

I’m autistic, and I didn’t even know this until I was fifty, yes, 50, when I “accidentally” discovered it. 

Not Everyone that Has Autism Will Know it or Tell You

I knew my entire life that I was different and never fit in.  I knew that I had endless social obstacles, and a myriad of sensory issues that baffled me and often interfered with my daily life.  I never had any early intervention of any kind.  Nothing.

My mom was my best friend, my sole support system, and my life coach.  She enabled me to find my inner strength and accomplish all that I have done.

My Perspective of the Healthcare System is Different Due to My Autism

My career literally forced me to interact with people, which was my “therapy!”

I’ve done over 50,000 cases to date, and I’ve had over one million social interactions with operating room staff, patients, and families! I’m also an internationally published military aviation photojournalist, and have flown in military aircraft including an F-15 fighter jet!

I did all my anesthesia training in New York City at Columbia- Presbyterian Medical Center and Roosevelt/St.Luke’s.

For many years I worked in the mid-west at a trauma-transplant-burn center and was on the trauma/transplant team.  I also did anesthesia for burns.  I’m at my current job for over 17 years now, where my specialties include neuroanesthesia and anesthesia for orthopedic joint replacement.  I’m also proficient in spinal and epidural anesthesia, and arterial line placement.

All these 27 years I’ve been looking at the healthcare system through my autistic eyes.

It is a very different perspective from what everyone else sees.  I see all the things that cause me to become stressed out, experience numerous sensory violations, and discourage me from seeking health care for myself.

Many with Autism End Up Misunderstood or Mistreated in the Healthcare System

Unfortunately, this is all too common for others on the autism spectrum.  I hear endless stories from autistic individuals and parents of autistic children of their negative experiences regarding health care.

The main reason?

Lack of understanding of autism by healthcare providers and other staff within the facility.

Additionally, the endless sensory overload while navigating the healthcare system.  There are endless positive things about the healthcare profession, but to an autistic person, their perspective is quite different.

They often feel a lack of understanding from the health care providers.

They get overwhelmed from the sensory overload in waiting areas from bright lights, overcrowding of patients and family members, and loud noise from TV’s and multiple conversations. By the time the nurse or physician is with them in an exam room, the autistic person is on the verge of a sensory meltdown. 

Their ability to process what the doctor is saying is gone.  How can there be a positive outcome for the autistic patient?

How to Address the Potential for Sensory Overload?

While this all seems a daunting list, it is actually quite manageable to develop evidence-based protocols and standards of care.  Keeping up with state-of-the-art autism information is only one part of the process.  Educating healthcare professionals and ancillary staff about autism coupled with how to communicate with them is key to success.  Additionally, making simple accommodations to waiting areas, exam rooms, and actual interaction with the autistic patient will go a long way.

With every 1 in 68 children being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, the population of the autistic community is exploding.  Additionally, there are already millions of autistic adults around the world.

We cannot wait any longer.

This community deserves the best care possible just like everyone else.  I have made it my goal to revolutionize the healthcare profession to provide top rate care to all my autistic population.  By joining in this mission, other healthcare providers can demonstrate their commitment to care for their autistic patients.  They will raise their standards from their competitor’s, and additionally, reduce chances of litigation.

The list for who needs to receive autism training is quite long.  Based on the list from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, it is as follows, but not limited to:

Licensed Professionals

  • Speech Language Pathologists
  • Occupational Therapists
  • Physicians
  • Dentist
  • BCBA and ABA Professionals
  • Physical Therapists
  • Psychologists
  • Clinical Social Workers
  • Licensed Professional Counselors
  • RN Nurses
  • Recreational Therapists

Education Professionals

  • Special Education Teachers
  • Special Education Directors
  • School Psychologists
  • Behavior Specialists
  • School Counselors
  • Classroom Teachers
  • Principals
  • School Nurses
  • Administrators
  • Clerical and Support Staff
  • Paraprofessionals
  • Higher Education

This extensive list indicates the vast number of professionals and ancillary staff that come in contact with autistic individuals.  There are even more than what’s listed.

In conclusion, it becomes obvious the great need to provide a standardized protocol of autism training, and also the need for someone like myself, an autistic healthcare professional, to bridge the gap between healthcare and the autistic population.

Everyone deserves the best care possible.

Help join the cause and find out more about becoming a Certified Autism Specialist or Advanced Certified Autism Specialist so you can be prepared to give them the best care possible!

By Anita Lesko, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, Autism Advocate, Author

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