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Telehealth for Autism Shows Promise

Raising a child with autism can be challenging but rewarding, say their parents, but telemedicine is beginning to show itself to be a valuable tool. Whether it’s being used for remote assessments to diagnose autism or remote in-home therapy, telehealth for autism is currently being studied—and the preliminary results look promising.

Roughly 1 in 41 children is affected by autism spectrum disorder, according to data analysis from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The disorder negatively impacts an individual’s social skills, which in turn affects the diagnosis and treatment of autism; careful observation and intimate interaction are needed since you can’t just ask a child what he thinks or feels. This makes the implementation of telemedicine more complicated than other applications such as emergency medicine.

At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, an innovative study suggests that the remote diagnosis of autism is both feasible and accurate. Children who were flagged for the disorder were evaluated twice: once with a psychologist via telehealth for observation and interviews with their parents, and once in-person with a different psychologist. In nearly 80 percent of the cases, the remote psychologists correctly identified children with autism, and no children were incorrectly diagnosed. In a second trial, 64 percent of the children were accurately diagnosed remotely, but the psychologists were unsure of whether an additional 13 percent were on the spectrum.

The study authors at Vanderbilt caution that more in-depth studies are needed, but these findings indicate that telemedicine can be a viable method for assessing children who are suspected of having autism, especially for families who live in remote areas or who lack access to specialists.

Meanwhile, other researchers are tackling the issue of treatment. At both Vanderbilt and the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, video conferencing is bringing therapy into the home, where children with autism feel most comfortable, as an alternative to home visits from therapists. This approach also allows specialists to observe children at home and during their regular routines without outside influence, allowing them to help parents identify possible triggers of problem behaviors.

So far, the results at the University of Iowa look promising; 86 percent of the cases reported a reduction in problem behavior—a rate comparable to that of a series of in-person therapy visits. The parents especially seemed to appreciate the empowerment they gained from this technique. If this outcome holds true with further research, the implications are significant. Families and therapists would no longer have to deal with the burden and cost of traveling for therapy, and the growing need for therapists around the country will be met more easily. Access to autism specialists will be improved greatly.

Most importantly, these initial studies suggest that using telehealth for autism will help meet the needs not only of the children affected by autism, but of their parents as well. And if the specialists’ stress levels are reduced because they no longer have to drive to every patient’s home, then that can only be a good thing, too.

For an application such as telehealth for autism, a telemedicine platform that gives the patient (or his parent) limited access, including initiating contact with a therapist or nurse, may be ideal. Alternatively, a support group of parents could be formed within the telemedicine app for instant encouragement. To learn how swyMed can be used in these capacities, contact us today!

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