Making Medical Appointments Easier

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Erica Kearney, M.A, LABA, BCBA

Attending doctor and dental appointments can be difficult for any child, including children with autism. As you think about the process and what happens at these appointments, it’s easy to understand why. 

As newborns and during early childhood, children attend appointments every few months. A lot that happens at these appointments can be perceived as aversive for any child. Clothing is removed so that he (or she) can be weighed and examined. He is in an unfamiliar place, undressed, and an unknown person in colorful clothing walks in and places him on a cold scale. Then he has to wait in a diaper until another stranger enters the room. This one is in a white jacket and has something hanging around her neck that looks like a snake. It turns out to be just as cold as the scale, and she uses it to touch his chest and back.

During the examination, the doctor also shines a light in his eyes, and looks in his nose and mouth. Then she hits the child’s knee with a hammer, says a few things to the parents, and leaves the room. When the first person, the one in colorful clothing, returns she is smiling and holding something that looks like a pen. The child quickly assesses the situation and it seems okay. Then she pokes him with the “pen” and he immediately feels pain. What just happened? The child is crying and mom and dad hug him and provide comfort, calming him down. 

These visits continue and the child begins to remember what happens when they go to this place. Sometimes he gets poked and it hurts, but sometimes he doesn’t. He does know that he will come out with a lollipop. The only other time he goes to this place is usually when he is sick or has to watch his sibling get poked and then cry. 

It’s no wonder some kids fear doctor appointments! But there are things that can make the experience better. I am impressed with the techniques used in my pediatrician’s office to help patients have the most enjoyable experience possible. I credit them for some of the suggestions below. 

Tips to help make medical appointments easier for all:

  - Schedule visits to expose your child to the environment. A lot of medical providers are understanding of the needs of children with developmental disabilities. They will allow parents to bring their child to visit the facility ahead of time.

  - Prepare the doctors and nurses in advance about what is challenging for your child. If he has a hard time waiting, ask for times of the day when patients typically don’t have to wait long – usually first appointments of the day or after lunch. 

  - If your child has a difficult time with large or crowded waiting rooms, ask if there is a quieter location where he can wait, or if the office is typically less crowded on specific days or times.

  - Bring things your child enjoys to the appointment. Distractions are a wonderful way to help children tolerate difficult parts of examinations. Watching a favorite show on an iPad while getting an x-ray certainly makes the experience more enjoyable. 

  - Ask the providers to show your child the equipment they are going to use and to demonstrate it on you or themselves.

  - Do not be afraid to ask the doctors and nurses to go slowly or take breaks. Doing too much at once can be overwhelming. Tell your child what is going to happen and use visuals when necessary. For example, “First she’s going to use the flashlight to check your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Then you can take a break!”

  - Reward your child. Some kids may need to be reinforced frequently throughout the appointment. For example, when my daughter broke her arm, after each part of the exam (x-rays, splinting, casting, etc.), they rewarded her with a sticker. At the end of the appointment, she got to pick a stuffed animal. 

  - If you have concerns about your child being able to attend appointments, discuss this with his educational and behavioral team members. It is not uncommon for teams to develop goals and strategies to effectively target medical appointments.

Attending medical appointments can be intimidating for children. But some planning and communication with your child’s providers can make a world of difference.

Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA, is Executive Director of the May Center School for Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit