The paediatric department at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead, has achieved the ‘Gold Standard for Autism Acceptance’ from the North East Autism Society (NEAS).

It is the first hospital children’s department in the region to be awarded the honour, following a series of innovations to ease the anxiety of young autistic or neurodivergent patients.

The department started working with NEAS in March, and the charity’s Family Development Manager, Kerrie Highcock, said the award was “richly deserved”.

It’s been wonderful to see how passionate the staff have been about wanting to make a difference. They have taken advice on board, and the changes and innovations have been made in close consultation with the local community.

The team didn’t approach it as a tick-box exercise but set about embedding the improvements across the whole department, and the feedback from families has been so positive.

Staff nurse Ashleigh Harrison, whose four-year-old son, Jack, is autistic, is the autism lead for the department. She said: 

I am keen to make a difference to children and support parents attending the department. I understand how difficult it can be to bring an autistic child into the hospital environment as I have had to do this with Jack on several occasions.

The innovations have included the introduction of distraction packs, which were the idea of nursery nurse, Wendy Oliver. Parents contributed ideas for what should go in the packs, which now feature a range of items, including: fidget toys, sensory aids, sunglasses, a visual story of what is going to happen during treatment, and feedback forms.

The distraction packs were initially developed for the children’s accident and emergency department, but their success led to them also being used in the children’s day unit.

Other initiatives include care passports, aimed at giving all children, who may be anxious, a stronger voice. It helps them to explain their likes and dislikes, what is important to them, and how their hospital stay could be made less stressful.

Under the guidance of NEAS, an ‘environmental audit’ was also carried out in the children’s unit, and children’s A&E. That led to a sensory tent being introduced, along with symbol signs, sensory toys, wobble-boards, wobble cushions, and a visual timetable to show the journey through hospital.

All doctors, nurses, and health care assistants in the children’s unit have also undergone training by NEAS experts.

Michelle Thomas, ward manager for paediatrics, said:

We get a lot of children who are autistic or neurodiverse, and I’m immensely proud of what’s been achieved with the help of the North East Autism Society. The award is the result of a lot of hard work and care across the whole team.

Lisa Langley, junior sister on the ward, added:

What’s really important is that a lot of the ideas came from listening to parents.

Organisations consulted included the Gateshead Parent-Carer Forum, and the Gateshead Autism Hub.

Consultant paediatrician Carmen Howey described the project as “a really important piece of work”. 

These initiatives really help to relax autistic children who are attending our accident and emergency department with acute illness. This makes a stressful situation easier for children and parents alike as well as making it easier for clinicians to make an accurate assessment of the child’s health leading to better outcomes for all.

Staff also liaised with Amy Coles, Lead Learning Disability Nurse, to maximise the benefits of the project, which led to the department being presented with the Diamond Standard from the North East and Cumbria Learning Disability Network.

Find out more about our Autism Acceptance Award