Urgent Care or the Emergency Room when you have Autism?

The emergency room is a stressful environment for just about everyone, especially for people on the autism spectrum. Watching the hustle and bustle of the medical staff and patients can make anyone feel on edge. Even if you’re not coping with a life-threatening emergency and are neurotypical, the atmosphere of a waiting room in the emergency ward can be overwhelming — and overstimulating.

Why the emergency room is not always best for people with autism

Autism is a neurological condition that can make communication difficult, especially when the person with autism is placed in a new environment like the emergency room. Whereas a neurotypical individual may just get nervous, a person on the autism spectrum, however, might experience a breakdown as they strive to feel more comfortable.

When these factors come together, someone with autism might not know how to respond. If a person with autism starts to panic, this can be a huge barrier to getting the treatment that they need. The emergency room waiting rooms are full of potential triggers for someone with autism that might overwhelm their ability to self-soothe and avoid a meltdown, but even after they get out of the waiting room the challenges don’t stop there.

Urgent Care vs Emergency Room: Where to go?

Symptoms that Mean You Should go to the Emergency Room

The emergency room is a great place if you’re struggling with a life-threatening injury or another serious condition that couldn’t be handled by a regular doctor. Many people who go to emergency rooms, however, would be better treated in an urgent room setting. It’s because of these non-life-threatening situations that emergency rooms get clogged up so many people in the first place.

Here are some of the most common reasons you should go to the emergency room:

  • If you’re experiencing excessive bleeding or another serious injury
  • If you have a high fever of over 104℉
  • If you have experienced a head injury
  • If you have been in a car accident
  • If you are experiencing a stroke

Symptoms that can be Treated Effectively at Urgent Care

An urgent care clinic, on the other hand, is more suitable for non-life-threatening injuries. If you happen to have a few bumps and scrapes after falling off your bike, an urgent care center will handle this issue with ease. Here are some of the top medical concerns that an urgent care is adept at fixing:

  • Minor sprains, breaks, bruises, fractures, and cuts
  • General cold and flu symptoms, like coughing and low-grade fevers
  • Seasonal allergy concerns
  • Simple lab tests, like strep and X-rays

Both locations are great for urgent medical concerns in the event that your doctor is not available. As such, emergency rooms are typically open around the clock while urgent care centers have extended hours ranging from morning until night depending on the location.

If a person with autism is suffering from an injury that needs prompt medical care, an urgent care center is usually the place to go.

young girl smiling with nurse

How Urgent Care Centers Help People with Autism Thrive

Unless your child’s life and wellbeing is at-risk, most of the time, an urgent care center will be better for coping with autism symptoms.

This is primarily because urgent care centers focus on efficiency. As such, they employ trained medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, and physician assistants (PA’s). While your child with autism won’t likely see the same doctor each time they visit an urgent care center, the familiarity associated with the receptionist staff and other members of the clinic will help them feel more at ease.

Wait Times at Urgent Care Centers are Typically Substantially Less

The wait time for urgent care centers is also a huge help for people with autism. If they are feeling overwhelmed, short wait times are much more realistic for someone on the spectrum. The average wait time for an urgent care center is only 18 minutes compared to the couple of hours usually experienced in an emergency room. This means that your child won’t have to cope with being in a strange place for longer than you have to.

It also means that you won’t have to deal with a crowded waiting area since people are able to enter and leave the facility quickly. The waiting room also won’t have the same type of life-threatening emergencies coming through that can be overwhelming or at least alarming to neurotypical or neurodivergent people alike.

Faster Scheduling and Telehealth Help to Further Limit Excess Stimulation During Wait Time

Most urgent cares are able to assess and treat around three patients per hour. Now that call-in options and scheduling appointments via telecommunication systems are becoming even more common, it’s likely that your child with autism won’t have to interact with too many strangers as you wait to be seen. In some cases, you might be able to use these telecommunication systems yourself instead of ever having to leave your house. This is a huge draw for parents of children with autism who get overwhelmed in medical facilities.

older woman receiving telehealth servicesMake sure to Consider Telehealth if a Physical Exam may not be Necessary

Many urgent cares are also offering telehealth for their patients. This allows the patient to be seen from the comfort of their own home. While there are certain limitations to telehealth because the doctor will be unable to perform an in-person exam, in certain situations this can be an extremely convenient way to treat something minor that needs attention when getting to the doctor is not an option.

Telehealth can treat a range of conditions that will vary somewhat depending on the location, but include (see your local urgent care for a comprehensive list):

  • Various allergies
  • Rashes/reactions like canker or cold sores
  • Cold/sinus infections
  • Refills for birth control, Epi pen, asthma or blood pressure
  • Sprains and strains
  • Upset stomach and nausea

Video Visits can Also be Used for

Abdominal pain, Animal and insect bites, Asthma Rx refill, Blood pressure Rx refill, Sprains & strains, Upset stomach & nausea

More Welcoming and Familiar Setting- Feel of Doctor’s Office vs. Hospital

If you do have to go for care in-person, urgent care centers also have the luxury of providing a more welcoming atmosphere that’s more akin to your doctor’s office than a hospital. For those patients who feel anxious in medical facilities, this is a huge help.

It isn’t uncommon to see your local urgent care center supply a bucket of sanitized toys and reading materials for waiting patients, along with carpeted floors and wall art.

Making the Decision: ER or Urgent Care for your Needs?

Before you go, ask yourself if a trip to the emergency room is what is most appropriate for your situation. Studies show that only 9% of patients who visit the emergency room are sent to the hospital for further care. At the end of the day, non-life-threatening injuries can be dealt with in a smaller medical center, like an urgent care facility. This combination of factors can significantly reduce the chances of an individual on the autism spectrum with hypersensitivity getting overwhelmed to the point that leads to a meltdown, making the chances much higher for effective care.

While each individual with autism is different, these are some important factors to keep in mind next time you are choosing if your child should go to an urgent care or an emergency room. Since children on the autism spectrum go to the ER 4-10 times more than neurotypical people, this is a decision that most every family with an individual on the autism spectrum will likely face multiple times before their child turns 18 and potentially after that as well.

While some hospitals are working to better serve the needs of people on the autism spectrum, urgent care facilities will always have a number of advantages over an emergency room for less severe injuries and infections. While both emergency departments and urgent care centers can learn to serve people on the autism spectrum better by getting trained and becoming Certified Autism Centers™, keep in mind the built-in advantages of an urgent care.

Next time you look to take your child in make sure to check to find what makes the most sense for your needs before heading straight to the Emergency Room.

– Traci Blake
Indigo Urgent Care

Learn More About Becoming a Certified Autism Center™

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