5 Tips to Prepare an Autistic Child for a Shot

Even before the recent availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, children have received vaccines for protection from illnesses and diseases since birth. And while it’s difficult for parents to watch their infants receive shots in chubby thighs—vaccines and other needle-based medical procedures often become more challenging as kids grow up. Fear of needles is quite common and can be even worse for those with autism. However, there are simple steps parents can take to help their autistic children tolerate medical procedures that require needles.

1. Be honest using softened language.

Each individual has a unique pain threshold, but for most of us, shots hurt. Telling your child they don’t could have unintended consequences such as not trusting their internal body signals or not trusting you in other areas of their life. But while we want to be honest, we can soften the language, such as using the term discomfort in place of hurt or pain. Give them a personal example, “For me, a shot feels kind of like a mosquito bite. It might feel the same for you, or you may experience a little more or a little less discomfort.” Honesty, softened language, and a personal anecdote can go a long way in minimizing your child’s concerns.

2. Lead by example.

Before your child needs to get a shot, let them see you or another family member bravely get one. You can talk them through your process and show them it’s nothing to be afraid of.

3. Consider NOT using distraction during the procedure.

Often I hear parents tell their child not to watch the procedure, which means not only are they going to experience the discomfort of the needle, but they are also going to experience the shock of not knowing when it’s coming. Surprise can be upsetting for children with autism. Having them watch the health care provider administer the shot removes the shock and surprise, leaving your child fully aware of when to expect the discomfort.

4. Educate using role play and social stories.

Take some time leading up to the shot to role play giving and receiving shots with a toy medical kit. You can also search Google for “Getting a shot social stories” for some great stories and videos to help ease your child’s nerves about getting a shot.

5. Offer something highly preferred after the shot as reinforcement.

Just like reinforcement works for encouraging positive behavior, reinforcement can work for encouraging healthy habits like taking vaccines. Pick something your child is highly motivated by and offer it as a reward. For my son, he’ll do just about anything for a Hersey bar. But for his vaccine, he was allowed to pick an extra giant one!

I got the COVID-19 vaccine today! My wing is feeling a little sore, but it’ll give my body an extra protective boost to keep me and others safe.

– Big Bird

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.