At the REED Academy nurse’s office, Seema Taylor tends to her fair share of cuts, scrapes, belly aches, and runny noses. You might also catch her drilling a cavity, taking blood, or giving an EKG — only these activities are a simulation.

Doctor’s or dentist’s visits that feel routine or slightly stressful for neurotypical people can be a source of immense stress for individuals with autism. Being touched or coming in close physical contact with an unfamiliar person can cause anxiety and fear. Noises, crowds, long waits, and even unfamiliar smells can be overstimulating — and not knowing what to expect can make these visits challenging.

That’s where Nurse Seema comes in. Housed with a dentist’s chair and mock medical equipment, her office at REED Academy looks unlikemost you’ve seen before. Our state-of-the-art school in Oakland, New Jersey, was designed to teach students essential life skills and is equipped with specialized instructional areas that help simulate real-world experiences.

Seema’s egg carton panoramic X-ray prototype, Terensinho’s styrofoam X-ray machine, Pat’s cardboard X-ray machine.

A registered nurse, Seema regularly works one-on-one with students to prepare for an upcoming trip to the dentist or doctor. For some, this might just be getting familiar with going up and down in the dentist’s chair. Others might receive a mock dental exam with an electric toothbrush while listening to a YouTube video that captures the sounds of drilling, suctioning, and scraping. To give students an idea of what it’s like to have blood drawn or receive a shot, for example, she uses a mock needle. 

Familiarizing students with these types of experiences requires creativity, collaboration, and thinking outside the box. For example, Seema also prepares students for tests, such as an EEG, done to monitor seizures and brain activity.

“We took a swim cap and attached mock electrodes with an attached camera bag to wear throughout the day. Some tests require you to wear it for 30-48 hours,” she explained. “We also do the same for an EKG, in which we attach mock electrodes to their chest and have them tolerate it for a certain period of time.”

“One of our students had an appointment for a panoramic dental X-ray, but sitting still for about 30 seconds created a challenge,” said Seema, who created a replica of an X-ray machine using egg cartons. She would practice spinning the device around the student’s head for 30 seconds while they sat still, and the student was successful at their appointment when the time came. Since then, our custodian Terensinho Oliveira and classroom consultant Pat DeFlora got involved and created two more replicas.

This position is truly a calling for Seema, who always wanted to be a school nurse. In fact, she worked as a nurse’s assistant in sixth grade! After working in public health, and then receiving her school nurse’s certificate, she joined the team at REED and hasn’t looked back.

“I love the collaboration and creativity that goes into finding different ways to make it work for the student. But the most important part is seeing them thrive and be healthy,” she said.