Telemedicine for autism is here to stay, and it's brought a wealth of options and services to people with autism and their caregivers. From diagnosticians to therapists to skill-building groups and programs, parents and children are finding a wide variety of possibilities that were unavailable only a few years ago.
While not all telemedicine practitioners are top-notch, and some types of therapy are more effective in person, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. This article will discuss the options available for telehealth for the diagnosis and treatment of autism, as well as the benefits, drawbacks, and how to find services.
Unlike many other disorders, autism can't be diagnosed with a medical test, cured with pharmaceuticals, or managed with hands-on clinical care. Many patients are children with parents who are willing and able to support diagnosis, treatment, and symptom management—and eager to be trained.
In addition, many of these highly motivated parents are seeking treatments or therapists that are hard to find, particularly in rural areas. That makes autism a surprisingly good candidate for telemedicine.
Telemedicine is a way for practitioners to diagnose and treat patients at a distance using technology, such as video conferencing, texting, email, online tests, and more. Telemedicine is often less expensive and more convenient than an in-person visit, though there are limits to what a practitioner can see and do without physical contact.
For parents of children with autism and adults on the autism spectrum, telehealth provides several important benefits. Specifically, it:
Telemedicine for autism has grown substantially in a short time. Today, it's possible to find well-qualified practitioners who can and will use the Internet to:
While telemedicine may not be ideal, it can be a great alternative when travel or office visits are difficult or impossible to manage. These are some of the most popular and successful forms of telemedicine available to people with autism and their families.
In most cases, telemedicine is quite new—which means that research comparing distance versus in-person options is just getting underway.
It isn't necessary to physically interact with a child to diagnose autism. That means practitioners can review records, send questionnaires by email, observe behaviors, and conduct specific tests using face-to-face video conferencing.
This is particularly meaningful because it can be hard to get a proper autism diagnosis in a timely manner due to the lack of qualified developmental pediatricians and neurologists, particularly in areas that are not close to large cities.
Telemedicine can speed up the evaluation process, thus providing families with faster access to appropriate services and therapies. It can also provide families in more rural areas with access to high-quality practitioners and clinics that may be associated with teaching hospitals in big cities.
Diagnosis via telemedicine is relatively new. To properly evaluate its success, it's important to compare the results of remote diagnosis to the results of in-person diagnosis. At least one study has done just that, and the results have been positive. But more study is needed to confirm those findings.
The vast majority of well-established treatments for autism—which include behavioral and developmental therapy, speech therapy, social skills therapy, and occupational therapy, among others—require little or no physical interaction.
What's more, preliminary research suggests that there is little difference in quality or outcomes between distance and in-person treatment. That's good news for parents who:
Another major plus of telemedicine for some parents is the ability to access some less well-known forms of autism therapy for their children.
While behavioral, speech, and social skills therapies may be available in schools, developmental therapies such as Floortime, relationship development intervention (RDI), or specific types of behavioral therapy are only available regionally. With telemedicine, families have a wider range of options.
Experiments have also been done in parent training for autism treatment, with significant success. For example, the highly regarded Denver Model relies on parent training. A study found no meaningful difference in outcomes when parents received online versus in-person training.
According to at least one study, even parent training for challenging behaviors seems to be effective at a distance.
While there are great advantages to telemedicine for autism, there are some limits. For example, one study found that an online social skills group for teens with autism was only mildly successful compared with in-person programs.
Certain types of therapy, such as sensory integration and some forms of occupational therapy and physical therapy, are truly hands-on treatments. While parents can be trained to implement some aspects of these therapies, only a trained professional with appropriate equipment can provide a complete treatment program.
Online parent support groups can be useful, but they have their limits. One of the most important aspects of parent support groups is the ability to share local information about schools, community services, funding, etc.
When a group is composed of parents from different regions, such sharing is less meaningful—though emotional support can be just as helpful.
No clinician is required to provide telemedicine for autism, but most are willing and able to do so. If access to telemedicine is an important element in your search for a provider, ask upfront whether any given provider is open to online diagnosis or therapies. You may also be able to find information about telemedicine options on a provider's website.
It is important to remember that telemedicine does rely on up-to-date computers, pads, or cellphones that are able to run programs like Zoom—and require very good Internet access to work well.
In addition, in order to receive telemedicine services for autism (particularly for a child or an adult with more severe symptoms), a responsible adult must be physically present to set up the call, manage any behavioral issues, help maintain focus, and answer any questions that come up.
While relatively new, telehealth for autism has already been studied and may be as effective as in-person services in many cases. It can also be a lifesaver for families who find it difficult or even impossible to find high-quality services nearby. Families can receive telemedicine services for a wide range of needs, including diagnosis, therapies, and parent training.
It's exciting to know that autism therapies can be successfully provided in many different ways, by clinicians far and near. If you're struggling with finding or getting to therapies for a loved one with autism, it's well worth your while to look into online options. You may find that more accessible therapies lead to more successful outcomes.