Parents’ Guide to Telehealth Therapy for Childhood Autism
Autism is an increasingly diagnosed condition in children, with 1 in 100 kids under age 18 diagnosed as autistic in the United States (CDC, December 2022).
Parents and families rely on telehealth technology to keep up with these changing times. Recently, telehealth treatments have been evolving in the United States, but they remain relatively new digital health technology for many American parents.
This guide aims to be a valuable resource for parents and families of autistic children. It is divided up into five sections based on the different aspects of childhood autism and focuses on providing first-hand information for parents considering telehealth as a way to help their children cope with autism.
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What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability of children in the first three years of life that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges due to repeated differences in mood, sensitivity, attention, and information processing. As a result, kids with autism may struggle to communicate or interact with others. ASD is also associated with intellectual disability in many cases.
Autism is classified as a developmental disorder because it impacts the formation of social and communication skills. These symptoms can lead to difficulties associated with a child’s day-to-day life. Such complications can range from academic issues to behavioral ones. Still, the most difficult of all may be dealing with the social challenges associated with ASD disease.
Typical Signs of ASD:
- Difficulty communicating and understanding nonverbal cues.
- Difficulty with social interactions; has a hard time making friends.
- Difficulty learning new skills, e.g., using knives or forks at home or school.
- Has trouble maintaining eye contact.
- Intense and repeated interests in specific objects or routines
- Has repetitive behaviors such as wearing the same clothes every day or rocking back and forth for hours a day
- Stereotypic, repetitive movements such as hand-flapping and hand-wringing.
See the complete list of ASD symptoms on the CDC website.
Many American families find themselves frightened to bring up the topic of autism due to many common misconceptions circulated in popular culture. Often this fear is fueled by other people’s negative input, which is especially troubling since autism can be a complex condition to understand and treat.
A child’s autism requires a strong family structure to support them while they learn how to form strong relationships. However, at home, the environment is often naturally challenging. When supported by parents and other caregivers who understand the challenges that come with autism, children on the spectrum can flourish.
“Many families of children with ASD have limited access to in-person behavioral, speech and occupational therapy services that may be covered by their insurance provider,” says Nathan Kronforst, co-founder and executive officer of Ascend Autism’s rehabilitation center.
What Is Telehealth Treatment for Childhood Autism?
The term “telehealth” refers to health care delivered by a medical professional using information and communication technologies to connect with a patient from any place at any time.
When telehealth is used in conjunction with other technological advances such as the Internet, mobile connectivity, and video conferencing, it allows a healthcare provider and patient to communicate through Zoom, FaceTime, or specialized telemedicine apps for remote therapy sessions.
Telehealth autism therapy connects doctors, therapists, and caregivers with patients through HIPAA-compliant video streaming systems in their homes. The treatment may be conducted through various means, including computers, televisions, smartphones, tablets, and more. The information is all stored digitally so that it can be accessed remotely by the autistic child and their ASD therapist. This access benefits families with little money or time to travel to therapy sessions.
Telehealth isn’t a standalone treatment for autism. In fact, it’s one of many tools in the autism therapy toolbox and should be used together with other treatment programs for the best results. In other words, it’s not the “Holy Grail” for autism.
However, telehealth can be very effective in a variety of situations, for example:
- When a child can’t attend ASD therapy on a regular and predictable schedule due to school or other commitments.
- Siblings of autistic children need to understand how to interact with their brother or sister.
- Children with more severe autism symptoms don’t enjoy personal care from parents and caregivers.
- Families who have difficulty getting time off work to take their kids to therapy sessions.
- Families living in rural areas where it’s hard to find medical professionals and therapists in their area.
- When a family is looking for an autism therapy alternative that doesn’t involve long-term commitments or time conflicts.
Now that telehealth is making its way into the mainstream of American life, it’s essential to understand how to navigate the system so that you and your child receive the best possible care for your autistic child.
The Benefits of Telehealth Autism Therapy
First off, telehealth can be an exceptionally cost-effective way for families to access autism treatments.
For example, a physician’s time spent with a child can cost a family approximately $55 per hour. Still, if a team of physicians can provide telehealth treatment via the Internet, the cost per hour is similar to traditional therapy.
Here are more benefits that make telehealth optimal for kids and parents looking to get the most out of their remote therapy sessions:
- Access video sessions from wherever you and your child are, making it easy to work around your schedule.
- Have non-medical people such as teachers, therapists, or caregivers deliver therapy sessions. This benefit gives your child a broader range of influence in their education/treatment.
- Customize your therapy sessions to fit into other activities, like sports practice or music lessons.
- Save time and money on travel expenses by having sessions at home.
- Include telehealth services for children with complex issues, like autism and other developmental disorders, that require a personalized medicine protocol.
- Offer autism counseling, which face-to-face sessions can best deliver through telehealth.
- Provides better service for those who can’t afford medical care.
- More convenient for kids with irregular schedules, like patients with ADHD and other disorders.
How does Telehealth Autism Therapy Work?
A therapist conducts a session using an all-in-one laptop computer/battery pack, webcam, and specialized therapeutic software. The equipment is available on Amazon and other online stores.
A therapist can set up a secure video call with the ASD child. The software also allows therapists to create individualized playlists and camera shots to customize the telehealth therapy for autism session.
The therapy session may occur in the patient’s bedroom, living room, or other common areas at home. The patient and their therapist can interact through the computer monitor to see each other but don’t have to look at each other.
The special telehealth software can be customized for both parties. For example, the patient’s screen can display therapeutic playlists, and the therapist’s screen can display the patient’s session history. In addition, multiple monitors can be used if more than one person is involved in the therapy session.
Each ASD telehealth therapy session lasts up to an hour and can repeat multiple times. In addition, the software has made innovative use of today’s video conferencing and broadband Internet protocols so that the session can finish in about an hour or less with virtually no latency.
In addition, the video chat positively impacts the therapy session by allowing the patient to engage mentally and physically with their therapist while limiting true face-to-face interactions.
Once the session is complete, the therapist can save a video recording of the therapy session for future use. This recording can be delivered to the parents in several ways, such as a downloadable or an MP4 file to be transferred to a phone or tablet. This recording can be beneficial for parents who aren’t able to attend therapy sessions or want to review the session on their own time.
Getting Started with ASD Telehealth Therapy
When conducting a telehealth session for your ASD child, the first thing that needs to be taken care of is the equipment. You will need a webcam and a reliable computer or tablet to conduct the therapy sessions.
Next, you’ll need to set up your session with a therapist or caregiver who offers telehealth therapy. You can do this over the phone or via email. You can also visit their site to learn more about their services. Again, you can expect to pay a fee for these sessions, though you may qualify for reduced rates for personal or family circumstances.
Next, take some time to set up your child’s session ahead of time. The therapist will provide you with instructions on how to prepare for the session. For example, the telehealth specialist may ask you to turn off specific devices that are making noise or to have a toy ready for your child to focus on during the session.
Finally, you’ll need to ensure that your child is OK with telehealth. Clients of all ages may be more comfortable with technology; however, many kids and teenagers aren’t.
Therefore, it’s essential to help your child feel at ease and ask if they have any special requests for the session. Your therapist should be able to accommodate these requests in advance.
When Telehealth Isn’t an Option for ASD Therapy
Even though many parents are opting for telehealth autism therapy for their ASD children, not everyone is a good fit for this service. Certain factors must be considered when deciding if this treatment is an option for the family.
Some families may wish to refrain from using autism telehealth therapy because they feel like they are not getting the full benefit of the medical program. Unfortunately, telehealth is typically not a substitute for in-person sessions, and there is no way to make up for missed sessions.
Another factor to take into consideration is cost. With telehealth, the cost of therapy is typically less, but the actual services received may be partially up to par.
There is always the possibility that the session will go differently than planned. In addition, since therapists don’t have direct contact with your child during these sessions, it’s more challenging to ensure they get the best care possible.
The last consideration is the issue of trust. Many parents are comfortable with telehealth therapy, but the thought of strangers interacting with their children is too unnerving for some. For these families, using telehealth may never be an option.
Telehealth autism therapy is just one of many ways American healthcare embraces technology to improve patient care. These advances are making medical lives easier for patients and putting healthcare companies ahead of the competition.
As more patients use technology to get the necessary care, the United States continues to establish itself as a global leader in healthcare. Telehealth autism therapy is just one-way telehealth offers an innovative and cost-effective option for hundreds of patients.
As more and more families begin to turn to telehealth autism therapy, the way they access medical care will undoubtedly change. So, in the next 5-7 years, telehealth may become the norm for many families rather than an alternative to in-person treatment.