Gavin Blair is all smiles during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an autism-friendly sensory room named in his honor at the Alexander T. Augusta Military Medical Center February 15, 2024.  The sensory room offers a calming space with sensory-friendly elements to alleviate patients' fears and anxieties. By providing a safe and welcoming environment, the goal is to enhance the healthcare experience for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

(Department of Defense photo by Reese Brown)

The Inauguration of the Gavin Blair Sensory Room on Fort Belvoir

Bright lights, loud noises, unfamiliar people, sterile smells, and intimidating equipment in the healthcare environment can invoke fear and inner chaos for all children, especially children with autism spectrum disorder (autism, ASD). According to the 2020 Center for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, autism is a common disorder affecting an estimated 5 million people in the United States. People with autism spectrum disorder have a combination of fundamental deficits in social communication and interaction across multiple contexts and restrictive and repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities. The prevalence of ASD in 8-year-old children is 2.8% and affects 1 in 36 children of all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups.

On March 14, 2020, TRICARE reported to the Congressional Research Service that 34,361 military children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, with approximately 60% of that number belonging to families of active-duty service members. As dependents, military children face unique challenges. Having an ASD diagnosis as a military child with core deficits in social communication and interaction, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, and moving every 2-3 years can present extreme challenges and regression. As our hospital system has transitioned to a medical center, we have also transitioned our patient care and will continue to develop an inclusive environment for our special needs patients.

At the Alexander T. Augusta Military Medical Center (ATAMMC), we realize our patients with autism require personalized patient care. The healthcare environment can be overstimulating, unpredictable, and ASD treatment plans are complex and involve an individualized team of medical experts which may require frequent office visits. We have developed autism-specific programs here at ATAMMC to build an autism culture of excellence. Within the department of developmental behavioral pediatrics, we have a multi-disciplinary diagnostic clinic ACDC (Autism and Communication Diagnostic Clinic), as well as the Autism Resource Clinic (ARC), a half-day clinic where we bring local medical, community, and military experts to parents to empower parents to build their child’s autism team. Within the department of child and adolescent behavioral health service, we have social skills groups for elementary, middle, and high school students, to include a Lego social skills group, a parent training support group, and a monthly educational seminar. Additionally, in combination with the department of nutrition, we have quarterly autism cooking classes, entitled “What’s Cooking? Life Skills for Kids with Autism”.

We strive to provide a welcoming, inclusive, and ideal healthcare environment for our neurodiverse patients with ASD. The following is a shining example of this coordination and forward-thinking effort as expressed by Dr. Jennifer Hensley, Developmental Behavioral Pediatric Nurse and Practitioner Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Uniformed Services University:

“Fall of 2022 was just a normal day in Devo Clinic when Gavin Blair and his mother came for a scheduled appointment. Gavin Blair is a 19-year-old remarkable young man and boy scout with autism spectrum disorder. Gavin shared with me he was contemplating what he should do for his Eagle Scout project and that he wanted to give back to other patients with autism. As our conversation evolved, we concluded that the healthcare environment was a scary place for many children, and Gavin wanted to be a beacon of change by designing a sensory room. Understanding that crying, agitation, and fear can envelop children with autism as they enter the hospital, and a sensory room would be the solution to alleviate our patients' anxieties and distress. Gavin developed his vision, drafted his room layout, researched costs, and presented to our developmental behavioral team throughout the next year and a half. Gavin’s hard work, motivation, and dedication led to the grand opening of the ATAMMC Gavin Blair Sensory Room on February 15, 2024. The Gavin Blair Sensory Room is a multi-sensory room with calming lights, tactile wall décor, calming colors, soothing fidget toys, welcoming scents, soft flooring, and rocking chairs paving a path for our patients to escape the overwhelming healthcare environment. Clinical symptoms vary for people with ASD and may include comorbid conditions such as communication impairment, intellectual disability, insomnia, feeding disorders, mental health conditions, and sensory processing disorders. Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder and requires an individualized, multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary collaborative medical and community team for optimum results. Patients with autism who come to ATAMMC no longer must sit in a scary, overwhelming waiting room or sterile screening room and can now enjoy a unique and welcoming environment for their medical care.”

Gavin’s dedication serves as a reminder of the impact individuals can make in creating spaces that cater to the unique needs of all patients, especially those with autism spectrum disorder.

“I would like to take this moment to thank Dr. Hensley for supporting my efforts to make an impact in the world,” said Gavin as he cut the ceremonial ribbon, welcoming all of those who may follow in his footsteps. “I am honored to be a part of this groundbreaking accomplishment. I hope other departments in this medical center and other military hospitals and around the world can see the value of having a comfortable space for ALL children!”

We could not agree more, Gavin.

Reese Brown, ATAMMC Public Affairs