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Telehealth and Autism: Are they compatible?

The COVID pandemic has seen a sharp rise in the use of telehealth practice by all kinds of health practitioners and for people from rural and remote Australia, this has given them convenient access to services that they have previously had to drive hours to get to, or simply not been able to attend. But telehealth isn’t only a pandemic tool. Whilst many research studies looking into telehealth and ASD tend to have small participant numbers, the evidence is showing that services delivered via telehealth are equivalent to or better than face to face services (see a systematic review by Ellison et al., 2021, here).

Yet, for some families, they will still have concerns and questions about whether telehealth is suitable for them and their child. The most common variation of a phrase we hear is: There is no way my three year old with ASD would sit in front of a computer screen for 30 minutes. Probably only magical unicorn three year olds would sit and complete 30 minutes of therapy online, not just children with an ASD diagnosis! But this isn’t the way online therapy has to be, and there are options available for children across Australia designed specially to ensure the needs of the child and family overall are met.

Look for options that are:

1.     Focused on the family: For young children, it is mostly the parents/carers who therapists will be working with. This can be working with the parents on behaviour techniques, or training them how to implement language stimulation strategies. So, a therapy session may be 10 minutes with you and your child, then another 20 minutes just with you, the parent, talking through some strategies and making a plan together. Or it may only be the parent for the first few sessions to address key priorities and then the child is brought into the sessions.

2.     Flexible: Telehealth is too commonly misinterpreted to mean a zoom call. At Umbo, for example, when our team talks about telehealth we mean video calls, phone calls, emails and text messages and we work out what is best for our clients. For some this may be a 10 minute phone call three times a week; for others it might be a brief 20 minute video session then the therapist sends through a bunch of resources over email to continue with; for others the family might send through videos of their child to the therapist, who then builds up some strategies and goals that they then discuss over the phone. In-clinic therapy can sometimes mean that the therapist doesn’t get to see your child as you see them but with online therapy, you could arrange to phone the therapist via Facetime the next time your child has a meltdown so that they can see exactly what it looks like and work out an approach with you. With a Person Centred Approach, the possibilities really are endless.

3.     Suited to children of all ages: Right now, our team is working with a number of young people on the spectrum for whom online therapy works very well. For people with social anxiety and the challenges of being with people face to face, working on screen has also been beneficial for teenage clients of ours, who readily engage with the online platform.

Choosing the right therapist for your child and family can be overwhelming and waitlists for allied health services continue to grow. Telehealth is a viable option for families and has the benefit of cutting out travel time and being flexible to your needs.

Claire Salter Parry, Clinical Services Manager, Umbo

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