SSM Health-affiliated autism center hosts 'sensory-friendly' vaccine clinic

March 1, 2022

People with autism may react poorly to the usual clinic setup


After 13-year-old Desmond Commo got his Pfizer COVID-19 booster injection at a vaccination clinic Feb. 5, he shot his dad a look that said, "Really, that's it?"

Desmond Commo, 13, gives a thumbs up after his COVID-19 booster shot at the Sensory-Friendly COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic at the SSM Health Treffert Center in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The clinic cares for patients with autism, who may be hypersensitive to noise and lights. Staff and the volunteer nurses adapted the vaccination experience to suit each patient.

His dad, Tyler Commo, says that was a calmer reaction than Desmond had to his first two vaccine outings. Desmond is on the autism spectrum, and his dad says the bright lights, mechanical noises, scary-looking equipment and potentially unpleasant procedures at health care appointments can be a recipe for disaster for a child sensitive to such stimuli. In fact, Tyler Commo says, one of Desmond's first and worst "meltdowns" was at a dentist appointment.

Ahead of Desmond's appointment at the vaccine clinic at the SSM Health Treffert Center in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, his father filled out a form listing the teen's sensitivities and offering suggestions for easing his anxiety. At Treffert, the nurse brought Desmond into a quiet room with soft lighting and gave him a fidget for distraction before administering the vaccine.

Tyler Commo says Desmond was in a great mood the entire time — in part because he had been at the Treffert Center multiple times before the pandemic and relished being back. The center offers supportive services for people with autism, behavior, and communication disorders.

Desmond was one of 29 people vaccinated at the Sensory-Friendly COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic sponsored by SSM Health, the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin and the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin. People age 5 and up could get their first vaccine and those ages 12 and up could get their booster. The autism center will hold at least one more vaccination clinic so those who require a follow-up dose can get it.

The center provided information to families in advance of the clinic on how to prepare for the appointments, recommending a full night's sleep and ample hydration. A family support specialist met each family upon arrival and accompanied them for the entire visit. Private rooms were available for those who wanted them. A sense of calm and quiet prevailed.

SSM Health nurses who volunteered for the clinic got instructions in how to distract and soothe their patients. In addition to fidgets, they used illustrated brochures to explain each step of the vaccination process in advance. The center spaced out appointment times so that the process would not feel rushed.

Megan Puddy is a board-certified behavior analyst and therapist providing autism services with the Treffert Center, and Kirsten Cooper is executive director of the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin. They helped to set up and coordinate the vaccination clinic.

Puddy says individuals on the autism spectrum are among the groups disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. She says she's aware of families that delayed vaccination for their autistic children because of fears that the encounter would traumatize them. And she knows of families that had failed attempts at inoculating their autistic children.

Cooper emphasized that adapting the vaccination experience to each individual patient is essential for people on the autism spectrum.

The clinic at the Treffert Center used an approach and resources made possible with the support of a grant from the Autism Society of America. Clinic organizers also got advice from the Autism Society of Minnesota, which had held a similar clinic. Fond du Lac clinic organization benefitted from knowledge that Treffert Center staff has honed since the facility opened in 2016. Staff have guided numerous families through challenges including routine health care appointments for children with autism.

Puddy says the Treffert Center has plans to teach providers at SSM Health and beyond ways to make health care more individualized not just for people with autism but for all people.

Individualization is at the heart of the approach the late Dr. Darold Treffert championed when he worked with SSM Health's Agnesian HealthCare to develop the Treffert Center on Agnesian's flagship campus in Fond du Lac. The center provides multidisciplinary diagnosis and treatment of autism, behavior, and communication disorders in children and adults. Treatment includes in-home, center-based and community-based programs. Treffert was a guiding presence for the center until his death in 2020.

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