FOR Ashleigh Harrison, the challenging reality of taking an autistic child to the hospital is not only part of her personal life, but also her professional life as a paediatric nurse.

Ashleigh Harrison's three-year-old son Jack is autistic and pre-verbal and Ashleigh says that the experience has opened her eyes to the range of sensory issues that hospitals can present for neurodivergent children.

That’s why, when she returned to work after having her second child, Ashleigh vowed to make a difference for children with neurodiverse conditions – which has led to the QE Hospital in Gatsehead, Tyne and Wear, making significant changes within its paediatric department.

I have a strong interest in looking after children who are autistic and have additional needs so I have taken on the role of autism lead nurse within the service. I am really interested in the communication side of things because my little boy is non-verbal and he does use quite a lot of visual cues and objects of reference.

Some of the changes that have been implemented include the development of a care passport, which parents can fill in, detailing any additional needs or conditions that hospital staff should be aware of.

These details would then be uploaded onto the patient’s file, meaning parents would not have to highlight that their child is autistic and struggles with loud noises, for example, every time they visit the QE.

Ashleigh says: “I have done quite a lot of research with the care passport. I have worked with different professionals but I also have worked with parents and carers, and I think this is really important because they are having to live this every day. 

I hope in creating this care passport, I’ve been able to let parents voices be heard.

Other changes include: the development of distraction packs - which are available to all children and contain items such as fidget toys, bubbles and Rubix cubes, wobble boards, visual signage for the wards, worry bands and large egg timers which can be used to help children understand how long they might have to wait.

A visual storyboard has also been produced to help children understand what is going to happen while they are in hospital and who they might see, as well as displaying photographs of equipment, such as thermometers and blood pressure cuffs, to relieve feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.

And the hospital also offers a sensory space for children who may find the ward, or the standard consulting rooms, overwhelming or dysregulating. 

I know how difficult it can be as a parent/carer. It’s not just coming into the hospital it’s everything that is going on at home as well. So, when I came back from maternity leave after having my second child, I thought ‘right I am going to make a difference’.

These changes have resulted in the hospital working towards its Gold Autism Acceptance Award from the North East Autism Society. The award recognises organisations that are committed to making a real difference for autistic and neurodivergent individuals.

Ashleigh adds: “First and foremost I am a parent, but I am a nurse as well … so I am trying to do my utmost to try and make the hospital as inclusive as possible, trying to put as many resources in place, trying to make as many staff as possible be aware of autism and other diagnoses as well, to just try and make it the best place for all patients of all abilities to come into hospital.”

Find out more about the work the QE Hospital is doing.