Experts estimate that a growing number of children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) every year. A recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) study gave the number as 1 in 68 (or 14.6 per 1,000) school-age children with an ASD diagnosis. Although researchers’ opinions differ on whether this is due to an increase in cases or just better diagnosing tools, the fact remains that there are many children who need consistent treatment for their autism symptoms. Some autism specialists are turning to telemedicine options to help improve their treatment regimens, leading many to wonder if telemedicine could become the new frontier in treating autism.

ASD is a serious developmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate and interact appropriately with others. Some symptoms include an impact on the nervous system, obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors. Because the disorder exists on a spectrum, the range and severity of symptoms can vary widely depending on the individual. Some treatments, like behavioral and educational therapies, are used to help reduce symptoms and encourage development and learning. Because specific therapies are recommended for treatment, families are faced with finding appropriate therapists or specialists to take their children to. This can be a daunting task if the family lives in a rural area or does not have access to these types of programs.

This is where telemedicine comes in. Telemedicine is the use of technology (particularly video chats with physicians or specialists) to help with the treatment of physical or mental illnesses. They can include video or email communications with a treatment team, online monitoring of symptoms, medication check-ins, and many more options. Telemedicine can be incredibly helpful for individuals who don’t have immediate access to the best and highest-quality health care. It can also help families save money, because these options cost less than traditional doctor’s office visits. These savings can be found because individuals don’t have to pay for transportation or for doctor’s office fees that are often accrued each time they visit a physician or specialist. Using telemedicine options also means that families don’t have to dedicate as much time to driving to appointments – they can be scheduled at more convenient times for the caregivers. This, in turn, can create less stress on the family, because the treatment is more tailor-made to the family and the child’s needs.

Divan - kid with iPad

With advances in telemedicine, treatments and programs for children with autism are improving.

Specialists who treat children with autism are relying more and more on telemedicine to help better reach and treat their patients. Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) in Nashville, Tennessee is currently using telemedicine in their treatment regimens. They mail an iPad on a tripod that can be controlled remotely to families they’re treating. The specialists then conduct hour-long behavioral therapy appointments remotely from their office using the iPads as cameras.

The telemedicine program is being funded by a $3.25 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE). The motivation was that TRIAD could expand rapid remote diagnostic evaluations, so that families in rural or ‘low-resource’ areas would have more access to services. Researchers have found that this form of telemedicine has been effective, partly because younger patients are able to be treated right in their own homes, where they feel the most comfortable. Additionally, they’ve found that costs have been cut because of reductions in travel expenses as well.

Another study funded by the National Institutes of Health is being conducted by researchers at Purdue University to determine if telemedicine can be used to diagnose autism in infants. The five-year study will give selected parents of high-risk babies (with fragile X or neurogenic syndromes) a telehealth kit, which includes a tablet, heart monitor, LENA vocal recorder and vest, tools to collect saliva, and toys. The families taking part in the project will be educated on how to use all of the items. They’ll also be instructed on how to use eye movement exercises and heart activity monitoring to help track their child’s attention and play behaviors, as well as social communication and motor skills.

Divan - child at computer

Telemedicine can also help as a diagnostic tool.

The project’s lead researcher, Bridgette Tonnsen, said, “We are partnering with the parents to coach them on how to do the research in their homes where the children will be more comfortable rather than traveling long distance to a lab. This will be more efficient, cost-effective, more family-friendly, and, I think, as a result we will be able to collect more powerful data.”

So, not only could telemedicine help once a child is diagnosed with autism (or on the spectrum), research like this could actually help to diagnose infants as well. This is crucial, since early intervention can be imperative in starting the child early on treatments and therapies that will be most effective for the alleviation of their symptoms. Whether telemedicine is being used to diagnose or to treat, it’s helping to change autism treatment for the better.