News and Notes from The Johnson Center

Medical experiences don’t have to be scary: The Role of a Child Life Specialist

JCCHD | Thu, May 17, 2012 | [Community][Healthcare]

The Child Life Professional

When children walk into a medical setting they are introduced to foreign objects, medical jargon, and numerous staff, potentially causing considerable fear and anxiety. For a child with a vivid imagination, even the most unthreatening items (like a scale) can be terrifying. Children are asked to sit a certain way, stand still, and breathe funny, and then they are placed in an unfamiliar room that might be loud or smell odd to them. They may be introduced to needles for a blood draw or have to hold still for tests like X-rays. Many times, children have gone through past medical experiences that were traumatic; as a result, they consider the medical environment threatening, and might act out during appointments.
Child Life Specialists (CLS) can help diminish the stress children face during a medical experience. According to the Child Life Council, Child Life Specialists are child-development experts who promote family-centered care, work in partnership with the medical team, and strive to meet the developmental and emotional needs of patients and families. They support patients and their families before, during, and after their appointments, as well as provide support during medical procedures by implementing coping strategies to help reduce anxiety.

Research has shown that children who are prepared for medical procedures experience less fear and develop positive coping skills that help them with long-term adjustment (Thompson & Standford, 1981). Studies have also shown that children on the spectrum might need additional support (Thomas & Standford, 1981). For example, they may have issues coping with transitions or becoming over-stimulated when multiple people enter a room. A CLS can provide interventions to help improve psychosocial outcomes for patients and their families by attending to the unique needs of children with autism.  The goal is to create a positive experience that will build a strong foundation for future medical experiences. 

Patients and families who come to The Johnson Center can expect to be greeted and supported by our CLS, who understands the overwhelming feelings that families might face, and helps to address those concerns. Together, the team at The Johnson Center integrates all aspects of care by addressing medical, nutritional, psychological, behavioral, and emotional concerns.

Different coping tools such as social stories, comfort positioning, and distraction during medical procedures are used in order to reduce stress. Our CLS also works as a liaison between parents and the clinical team by creating a bridge of communication. The Johnson Center is proud to be one of the few organizations in Austin, Texas that offers Child Life services and the only organization in Austin that has a CLS who works specifically with children with autism.

Medical experiences don’t have to be scary – and we are committed to addressing this for all of the children we serve.  At The Johnson Center, we’ve created an environment in which children can have positive experiences - with the help of a supportive team, including a CLS.

Thompson, R. H., & Standford, G. (1981). Child life in hospital: Theory and practice. Springfield: Charles C Thomas.

Child life: Empowering children and families. (n.d.). Retrieved from