Clinical: Treating Neurodivergent Patients: A helpful checklist

Treating Neurodivergent Patients: A helpful checklist

Osmosis Team
Published on May 29, 2023. Updated on Jun 22, 2023.

When it comes to working with patients who have neurodivergent brains, the key lies in conscious collaboration to achieve the desired outcome. In today's Osmosis blog, Stephanie Viggiano, Digital Communications Manager with Elsevier, offers valuable strategies for effective collaboration in treating neurodivergent patients, drawing from her personal experience.

Providing personalized care is important for clinicians because it plays a critical role in patient comfort, including their motivation to comply with treatment and the ability to reach positive outcomes. And when it comes to treating neurodivergent patients, who often experience anxiety about seeing a medical professional—myself included—it’s doubly important to work together.

Neurodivergence includes an assortment of natural variations in the human brain, such as Autism, ADHD/ADD, and Dyslexia. However, rather than thinking of them as disorders, these conditions are simply differences in how our brains process information. In fact, neurodivergent individuals often possess distinctive strengths and abilities that can be leveraged with the right approach.

When it comes to healthcare, neurodivergent patients often encounter challenges in following treatment plans designed for neurotypical patients. Therefore, it’s beneficial to both patient and clinician to prioritize strengths-based approaches for neurodivergent information processing and use tailored care styles and treatment plans. 

Strategies for Effective Collaboration with Neurodivergent Patients

1. Establish psychological safety using Engel's biopsychosocial model

At the core of patient compliance is trust. Establish psychological safety with your patients using Engel's biopsychosocial model to care for the whole person. Some neurodivergent patients may feel overwhelmed in clinical settings or anxious about their appointment. If their needs or diagnoses are disclosed in advance, communicate in a manner that accommodates those needs. Creating a safe environment starts with having clear and concise communication with patients before they see you in a clinical setting.

Consider reaching out before the appointment to ensure each patient’s accessibility requirements are met. Depending on the person, this may involve minimizing sensory input (for example, scheduling them in the quietest exam room for their appointment), providing clear and concise written communication (in print and over email) about their care, and allowing ample time for patients to process information and ask questions (e.g., anticipate longer appointment times).

2. Use individualized treatment plans

Create a neurodivergent patient-friendly system that incorporates email automation and automated appointment reminders. Explore potential technological solutions like apps or text message reminders. Offer visual aids, such as posters or infographics, to enhance understanding. Break down complex instructions into smaller steps. Use technology to improve communication and the overall patient experience by providing care instructions via print at the office and by email after the appointment. 

3. Foster motivation

When people feel seen and praised for their hard work and progress, it boosts their confidence and self-esteem. Positive reinforcement and recognition can be an excellent path to treatment compliance by helping neurodivergent patients maintain their motivation to stick to a treatment plan.

Positive reinforcement also comes in a variety of forms. It can be a simple phrase like saying, “Great job!” Or you can send a quick note of encouragement through your health portal or email to acknowledge their participation. Because, after all, who doesn’t appreciate a kind note filled with praise?

4. Collaborate with family and caregivers, when applicable

It’s not uncommon for neurodivergent patients to involve a family member or caregiver in their healthcare. Support can involve everything from travel to their appointment, help with paperwork, to being present during an examination to ease patient anxiety. Family members and caregivers can also often provide valuable insights into a patient’s needs and preferences, leading to improved treatment outcomes.

The key is finding a balance between the patient’s need for support and their desired level of privacy. Acknowledge and respect cultural diversity when working with caregivers and family members. Actively collaborate on coordinating care, making sure to involve the patient in the conversation (when feasible). Offer support, guidance, and training to caregivers on how to best assist at home while including the neurodiverse person in any planning.

Key takeaways and resources

Providing effective medical care to neurodivergent patients requires a thoughtful and personalized approach. By embracing and understanding each patient’s individual needs, healthcare providers can create a safe and inclusive environment that promotes positive outcomes. And by prioritizing these strengths-based methods, clinicians can empower neurodivergent patients to thrive as well as ensure they receive the personalized care they deserve.

Use this checklist to help frame your neurodivergent patient care: * Prepare the examination room with a patient’s sensory needs in mind.  * Ask simple and direct questions. * Use clear language. * Take your time—don’t rush an answer and try to extend the appointment time. * Use detailed explanations of tasks to reinforce compliance. * Consider input from caregivers when working on diagnoses. * Allow patients to have sensory time with medical equipment before use. * Don’t assume that a patient’s current behavior is their baseline—everyone processes their experiences, like pain and anxiety, uniquely.

About the Author

Stephanie Viggiano is a Manager of Digital Communications with Elsevier. A Ph.D. student of Global Leadership & Change at Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, She holds an MS in Strategic Communication from Columbia University, an MA in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University, and an AB in German from Bryn Mawr College. Stephanie is an alumna of Digital Media for Social Impact at the Center for Social Impact Strategy at the University of Pennsylvania and is an Emerging Advocate with the American Migraine Foundation. Stephanie is late diagnosed with AuDHD; her research focuses on neurodivergence in the workplace.