Student nurse Louise Pickford is autistic, and while on placements she has witnessed neurodivergent people being misunderstood on NHS wards.

So she came up with what she calls a “small but powerful” service improvement to try to make things easier for autistic patients in hospitals or mental health services.

It’s a double-sided, A4 laminate with prompts to fill in whether a patient should have a trusted person with them and what their sensory needs are.

It notes times of meals and any medical interventions during the day. There are also bullet points for medics to record what has been discussed and what the plan is. Finally, there’s a space for the patient to write down questions they forgot to ask.

Louise, 52, developed it for her final-year dissertation at Teesside University in consultation with autistic groups, and she is hoping to take it with her to the NHS when she starts work after graduating this summer.

“It spares patients from having to repeat themselves constantly, and from having to speak up and ask for things,” she says. “It helps them process information and adjust to change, and it reduces their stress levels.

“It also improves communication and interaction with staff. People don’t always understand autism, even healthcare professionals.

They sometimes see patients as dangerous or fussy or attention-seeking when in fact they are just autistic and need straightforward answers and understanding.

Two examples Louise cites are of a patient who had a meltdown when she was suddenly told she was moving wards, and another who couldn’t sleep at night because of the blankets yet could fall asleep when wrapped in his own duvet coat.

“It’s these little understandings that make a big difference to the patient journey,” she says.

Research has shown that people with a learning disability and autistic people die younger on average than the general population and do not receive the same quality of care.

The Learning from Lives and Deaths report for 2021-22 found that almost half of deaths recorded were “avoidable” compared to 22% for the general population.

“The NHS Long-Term Plan recognises the imbalance and says it should be addressed but doesn’t say how to do it,” Louise says. “Well, this is a start.”

She would also love to see more neurodivergent professionals on the wards who would understand both the autistic patients and the staff’s concerns.

“You need healthcare staff who are neurodivergent, and for that to be supported, accepted and valued in the workplace.”

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