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Using Telehealth To Treat Autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a common developmental disability occurring in children between the ages of 0-3 years old. ASD includes conditions that were previously thought to be separate; autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder.
The exact cause of ASD is unknown, but it is believed to be influenced by genetics and some environmental factors.
By statistics, 1 in every 59 children suffers from this disorder.

The term “spectrum” in ASD refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity. According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC),
“People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.”

With ASD, there’s no cure, but it can be managed. So it’s always best to begin treatment early. But in many cases, children with ASD and their families cannot access treatment due to high costs, distance barriers, and/or limited availability of services.
And that’s where telehealth comes in. So how has telehealth been utilized in treating autism?

Role Of Telehealth In Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder.

  • Early Diagnosis Of Autism with Telehealth.

Autism generally can be identified in a child from 18 months of age. This involves screening them in their second year and beginning treatment on those who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. However, many children are not screened at all. The parents only find out that their children are affected by the disorder when visible signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder begin to appear.

This is usually in the toddler or preschool stage of the child’s life.
Some in more rural communities, never do and tag the child as an ‘imbecile’ for life.

A lot of people, especially those from low-income communities, don’t have access to diagnostic services.
However, telehealth is used to augment the diagnostic process.
Recently, a study was carried out to test the effectiveness of telehealth in diagnosing autism.
Every remote diagnosis was followed by a physical one.
The remote doctors were able to accurately identify 78.9% of all the children who ultimately received ASD diagnoses.

This doesn’t just show that telehealth is only instrumental in early diagnosis. It also makes the diagnostic process available to everyone, regardless of location.

  • Widening Access to ABA Procedures Through Parent Training.

Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy is the best and most common therapy method for children diagnosed with autism. The therapy focuses on behavioral improvement by encouraging the positive behaviors of an autistic child and discouraging the negative or harmful ones.

It also teaches the child everyday skills like basic communication, taking a bath, or brushing their teeth. It is a flexible procedure that can be tailored to meet the individual needs of every child and that’s what makes it an ideal treatment.
However, like most healthcare services, many people don’t have access to it. This is due to how expensive it is and the shortage of therapists, amongst other reasons.

What telehealth does is that it allows the child’s parents, teachers, and other caregivers to be trained on how to deliver quality ABA therapy to the children.
Through remote video coaching, parents can undergo training to effectively treat or reduce their child’s behavioral problems. This works in place of in-person consultant visits.

  • Remote Language Assessments for Children with ASD.

ASD also affects the child’s speech and communication skills so an aspect of treatment is speech therapy. To provide that service, speech-language pathologists evaluate the child’s attention or listening, their understanding of receptive language, their language of expression (i.e vocabulary and sentence formation), and social communication abilities amongst others.

Telehealth enables these assessments to be carried out remotely. It is true though that the needs of each child are different, so having a caregiver or parent assist the evaluator on one end eases the assessment.

  • Parent Coaching & Support with Telehealth.

A child with ASD displays a number of behaviors like tantrums, noncompliance, and aggression. So they require other forms of support apart from ABA therapy. Parents can be trained remotely to deliver this much support like a specialist would, if not better when emotions for the child are factored in.

  • Improving Access for the ASD Patients.

Telehealth solves the problem of scarcity of medical personnel through Remote Patient Monitoring (RPA) and better access to specialists. The services provided via telehealth include:

  • Diagnostic assessments.
  • Preference assessments
  • Early intervention.
  • ¬†Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
  • Functional assessment and functional communication training.
  • Parent training.

It also addresses that challenge by equipping parents and other caregivers of the child with ASD with enough skills to care for them.
That way, they aren’t clueless about the needs of their child and can handle most situations themselves.

  • Improving Patient Outcomes and Satisfaction.

By increasing the frequency of patient monitoring and communication with patients and caregivers, we’ve seen better results with telehealth.
Specialists can modify treatment plans according to regular assessments and intervene more frequently compared to when healthcare was limited to physical visits.
The regular parent or caregiver remote training with direct-support professionals has also helped to improve the quality of healthcare. This, in turn, improves the patient’s response and outcomes to treatment.

Conclusion

Telehealth has not only bridged the gap between specialists and patients living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, but it has also raised awareness about it.
Before telehealth, many people, especially those in low-income or rural communities, had no idea of what ASD is.
Autistic symptoms were labeled as witchcraft or a disability and getting a diagnosis and treatment was out of the question.

But with telehealth on the rise, more and more children with ASD are able to get the healthcare they need, without their locations posing a problem.
Research has even argued that the services provided are equivalent, if not better, to in-person care. However, in telehealth, there’s always more ground to be covered and more depth to reach.

Author: 

Ogboi Miracle Nwachukwu.

References:
  • Bearss, K., Burrell, T. L., Challa, S. A., Postorino, V., Gillespie, S. E., Crooks, C., & Scahill, L. (2017).
    Feasibility of Parent Training via Telehealth for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Disruptive Behavior: A Demonstration Pilot. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(4), 1020-1030. doi:10.1007/s10803-017-3363-2.
  • Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders | CDC.
    https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html
    Accessed on 10th October, 2022.
  • Telehealth & Autism – A Piece in the Puzzle | Telehealth Insights.
    https://www.healthrecoverysolutions.com/blog/telehealth-autism-diagnosis
    Accessed on 10th October, 2022.