Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has become a much more prominent fixture in healthcare practice. When nonessential clinic visits were suspended at the height of the pandemic, meeting with a physician or psychiatrist over video chat enabled people to receive important care from their doctors without needing to be in person, including care that involved early diagnosis, management, and prevention of diseases.
According to a new study published in Autism, telehealth may also be an important tool for early detection and diagnosis of autism, a developmental disorder that can affect communication and social skills.
Research suggests that early detection and diagnosis of autism—signs of which can be seen in children 18 months old, or even younger—can improve a patient’s prognosis and the quality of life for both patient and caregiver. However, many caregivers are either placed on long waiting lists or must travel a significant distance to see a specialist, making early detection difficult. Telehealth has potential to improve the ability to diagnose autism early by removing some of these barriers.
In the study published in Autism, researchers looked at whether telehealth was an effective way of administering important health assessments that help monitor for signs of autism. The research team followed 41 infants ages 6 to 12 months. Researchers used a behavioral assessment, TEDI, which describes a series of activities caregivers can do (such as peek a boo) to help a doctor measure social skills and other indicators of autism. Caregivers were also asked to complete questionnaires about their child. Overall, caregivers found TEDI useful when conducted over telehealth, and TEDI helped show that most participants had a higher likelihood of autism, validating its usefulness as a diagnostic tool.
Researchers were quick to note, however, that telehealth was not being used to diagnose autism; rather, regular use of telehealth visits in a child’s early months could help doctors and caregivers better monitor a child’s developmental progress. One of the authors noted that telehealth could serve as a secondary resource to caregivers, a way to help fill in more pieces of the puzzle when it comes to understanding a child’s behaviors. The end goal is greater access to doctors and other medical professionals to support caregivers and patients.