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Telemedicine effective for parents of autistic children

In addition to effectively training parents to solve behavioral issues, the cost of care was cut by two-thirds.

By
Stephen Feller
The ability to see a child in the environment where they are most comfortable helps doctors to understand patients, making telehealth useful, in addition to being far more affordable and easy, researchers found in a new study. Photo by Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock
The ability to see a child in the environment where they are most comfortable helps doctors to understand patients, making telehealth useful, in addition to being far more affordable and easy, researchers found in a new study. Photo by Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

IOWA CITY, Iowa, April 12 (UPI) -- There was a time doctors thought children with autism spectrum disorder had to be treated in person, making it difficult to help frustrated parents deal with communication or behavioral issues, but researchers found in a recent study that telemedicine can help this issue.

Researchers at the University of Iowa found video chats with doctors can help parents with autistic children in rural communities deal with sudden behavioral problems.

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Studies in recent years have shown telemedicine can be effective for post-surgical care, in addition to aspects of primary care and some ongoing conditions.

For children on the autism spectrum, changes to schedule or routine, or something else, can cause a meltdown and either parents need help understanding or dealing with the situation, or need somebody else to do it for them.

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The researchers said early in the development of telehealth methods, it was thought there was no way to treat autistic children without seeing them in person -- leading to doctors meeting patients at hospitals closer to where they live.

Although parents were able to be coached by doctors to create more functional communication training, it was still inconvenient for families. The development of in-home telehealth with computers and smartphones allows doctors to see children in the environment where they are most comfortable and spend the most time, potentially improving treatment because of a better understanding of the children.

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"This coaching is more than having a casual talk with families," Dr. Scott Lindgren, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Iowa, said in a press release. "It's setting up a variety of situations in which problem behavior may occur, and helping parents find ways to address problems constructively, and to better understand why that behavior is occurring. For 90 percent of the kids we evaluate, we can find a social reason for what that child is doing."

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For the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers tested three different methods of delivering therapy with 107 children diagnosed with autism, treating them either with in-home therapy, clinic-based telehealth or home-based telehealth.

The researchers reported all three methods were effective at reducing problem behavior by teaching parents to conduct functional analysis and functional communication training with their children, reducing problem behavior by 90 percent in all groups.

Using in-home telehealth managed to slash the cost of care for challenging behavior by two-thirds, from $6,000 to about $2,100 because of a lack of travel expenses and staff hours for everyone involved.

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"It's been impressive to me to see how well this works in different settings," Lindgren said. "Almost all of the parents do well enough in this training to be able to help their kids a lot. And that reduces stress on the family and helps kids succeed in school and in life."

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