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Ensuring the practice is autism-friendly

Autism access development manager at the National Autistic Society, Daniel Cadey, provides advice on making sure a practice is set up to best support autistic patients

02 Sep 2018 by Emily McCormick

We know that going to an opticians can be an anxious experience for a lot of autistic people who don’t have regular sight tests. Therefore, over the last few years we have been working with a number of opticians, large and small, to support them in equipping themselves to best meet the need of autistic patients – consequently securing our Autism Friendly Award Standard.

In order to be recognised as an autism-friendly opticians, we ask practices to meet five criterion. This includes: providing timely customer information to help prepare before a visit; ensuring that staff have a good understanding of autism and the particular needs an autistic person might have; creating a welcoming physical environment; providing a route for individuals to feed back on their experience; and also promoting wider awareness of autism among other visitors to the opticians.

What is autism?

More than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. Autism is a lifelong disability and means that someone sees, hears and feels the world in a different, often more intense way to other people.

Autistic people often find social situations difficult and struggle to filter out the sounds, smells, sights and information they experience, which can make the world an overwhelming place.

"Every autistic person is different – some will have more support needs than others and it’s about working together to achieve the goal both outside and inside the testing room"

Gaining Autism Friendly Award status

There are a number of steps that an opticians can take in order to increase potential patients’ knowledge around the practice visit and the eye test itself.

The world can be an unpredictable, confusing place for autistic people and that makes a set routine crucial for getting by. Unexpected changes, bright lights or loud noises can cause a lot of distress – and so many of these things can come into an eye exam.

In order to alleviate these issues, we encourage practices that we work with to educate their patients about what is involved in an eye exam prior to the test.

While larger businesses that we work with, such as Specsavers, have created a visual story depicting the process of the eye exam, from entering the practice to the testing room and beyond, other smaller practices have introduced familiarisation visits. This is when a patient will visit the practice simply to look around the practice and the testing room so they will feel more comfortable when they return for the actual eye exam. Both are effective ways of demystifying the eye exam process and helping people feel at ease ahead of their visit.

When it comes to the eye exam, allowing autistic people to book a quieter time to come in can also be beneficial. Having an area that you know is a little bit quieter, so there’s somewhere for them to go if they’re feeling overwhelmed, is also an advantage.

Where possible, and at the discretion of the patient, I would also recommend giving the option to note particular requirements on an individual’s record to ensure that staff can make reasonable preparations for their visit. This could include anything from particular sensory issues to personal preferences that might help reduce anxiety prior to the exam taking place, such as reducing the numbers of staff an individual will need to encounter during their visit.

"I would emphasise that becoming an autism-friendly practice does not have to mean big or expensive changes, more often than not it is simply having a little bit more of an understanding about autism"

The eye test

Every autistic person is different – some people will have higher support needs than others and it’s about working together to achieve the goal both outside and inside the testing room.

When it comes to the eye exam, it is important for the optometrist to prepare and set expectations about what will happen during the test and how long it will take. Preparing for some of the issues that may arise will mean that the optometrist can respond effectively in order to achieve the results they require in order to perform an accurate eye exam.

Setting out the test before it happens will certainly save time in the long run.

Communication is key and it is important for all staff to understand the requirements of autistic people because when you understand the challenges that someone may be facing, it is easier to cater for their needs. I would emphasise that becoming an autism-friendly practice does not have to mean big or expensive changes. More often than not it is simply having a little bit more of an understanding about autism.

In the UK there are thought to be around 700,000 autistic people. If you take into account families and carers, this means autism is part of daily life for 2.8 million people. Like everyone else, they are likely to need to visit an optometrist at some point in their lives. Therefore, I would encourage all opticians to consider working with us becoming an autism-friendly practice.

Three tips to success

  1. Make sure people are informed about what is involved in an eye exam prior to the visit
  2. Allow them to book a quieter time
  3. Make sure they have access to the things that help them stay calm.

For more information about eye care, visit the National Autistic Society’s website.  

To find out more about the Autism Friendly Award, click here.   

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