LITTLE Isabella Wright knows better than most the sensory issues that hospitals present for autistic patients, having undergone six major operations by the age of six.

Isabella, from Middlesbrough, was diagnosed with bilateral hip dysplasia when she was just four days old and, since then, she’s had six major operations.

Her hospital visits were made more stressful by the fact that she is also autistic, with complex sensory issues adding to the natural anxiety everyone feels when facing surgery.

But thanks to pioneering work at The James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, autistic children, like Isabella, are now benefiting from individual care that’s going a long way towards easing the stress of surgery.

“The small but significant changes make it less stressful for the whole family,” Isabella’s mum Jacqui explains. “It eases Isabella’s anxiety and, as parents, if Isabella is less stressed we can focus on keeping her calm and limiting sensory input.

I can’t praise the hospital enough for the improvements that have been made.

In Isabella’s case, personalised care has included changing the taste of her premedication to an orange flavour to prevent it making her sick. She was also put into a side ward to protect her from noise and lighting, and her parents were allowed quicker access into the recovery room because she suffers from separation anxiety.

In the x-ray department, she receives low-sensory x-rays, dimmer lights are used, the number of people in the room is minimised, and she’s able to play on her iPad while the x-rays are being taken.

The consultants and anaesthetists are also brilliant,” adds Jacqui. “They speak slower, use short sentences, and don’t overwhelm Isabella with information. The award is well deserved and I’m sure other hospitals could learn from them.” 

Jacqui says that James Cook took all of Isabella’s needs and preferences into account, even asking a series of detailed questions during her pre-op assessment to make sure the care she received was tailored to her.

Jacqui says:

I believe that treating the patient as an individual assessing all their individual needs and requirements improves the patient journey. Especially for those with additional needs who may need extra support and require a more thorough assessment. James Cook addressed all her needs and preferences.

In recognition of the changes made, the hospital was awarded the North East Autism Society’s Gold Autism Acceptance Award in March 2023, in recognition of the commitment by staff to understand the needs of autistic children and make changes that can make all the difference to their time in hospital.

While Isabella and her family have received exemplary care from the staff at James Cook, Jacqui says she has found GP practices to be far less understanding of autistic patients and their needs. However she says other medical professionals have been able to make accommodations to reduce Isabella’s anxieties, including physiotherapists who now visit Isabella at school. 

Asked what other hospitals could learn from James Cook, Jacqui believes the programme developed by James Cook should be rolled out across the wider NHS, adding “excellent care should not depend upon where you live”.

Find out more about the work James Cook has done