As a child life specialist at the IWK Health Centre, Kate Stone helps prepare patients for surgery and ensures they understand what’s going on.

“So we do medical play, we do preparation, we practice with the mask, we talk about IVs, we show pictures of the operating room and we just really want to help patients feel ready for going in for surgery,” Stone says.

The experience can be stressful for children, especially those living with autism spectrum disorders.

“Children with autism present with unique sensory, emotional and communication differences that I think sometimes post challenges for health care providers,” says psychologist Dr. Jill Chorney.

With that in mind, Dr. Chorney and her team created Building Alliances for Autism Needs in Clinical Encounters: Surgery Edition, or BALANCE.

“BALANCE is an online educational program for healthcare providers and the goal is to help them feel more comfortable providing family centered care for children with autism,” she says.

The surgical staff completed the online learning modules and were also provided with a tool kit to help support patients through the experience.

“So we have sunglasses if the light is too bright, there’s options for sunglasses, we have noise cancelling headphones, there’s just some reminders for staff to dim the lighting, close the doors,” Stone tells CTV News. ”There’s different sensory items to squeeze if texture is something that’s comforting.”

Dr. Chorney says the content is delivered by those involved in the care.

“We have kids with autism telling healthcare providers about autism. We have families talking about their experiences of their healthcare encounters,” says Dr. Chorney. “We have healthcare professionals talking about how they provide care and we have researchers and experts in autism informing the program as well.”

Pediactric anesthesiologist Dr. Sally Bird shared her experience in one of the program’s videos and completed the modules herself.

“My experience had been that children who were on the autism spectrum sometimes seem to be having a more distressing or stressful experience when they were coming for an anesthetic or for surgery.”

Dr. Bird says she has already noticed a positive impact on her practice.

“I sort of realized I should take a minute and I should actually say to this mom that I really wanted to make sure that she felt that she was part of the team and that we could work together and were there any things she wanted to share with me,” Dr. Bird recalls.

“It’s really exciting to see the team feel more confident in the skills that they already had to provide really specialized care for every patient when they’re here but just to have a better comfort level with patients who are here with autism spectrum disorder,” adds Stone.

Dr. Chorney says the hope is to eventually broaden the BALANCE program to emergency care, clinics and other areas of the hospital, as well as other healthcare centres.