Did you know that one in 68 children have autism?
The incidence of autism has skyrocketed over the past few decades. The reason for the increase in autism is unknown, but more children are diagnosed with the disease as more parents, educators, and healthcare providers have increased their ability to recognize the signs of autism.
Autism is a developmental disorder with a wide range or “spectrum” of symptoms, problem and levels of disability. Social skills and communication skills are primarily affected when a child has autism, but it takes a clinical diagnosis by an autism spectrum center for a child to have access to the resources available for children with autism.
In Missouri and nationwide, the wait times are typically 12 to 18 months for a child to be seen by an autism specialist that can give an official diagnosis. The six locations in Missouri that provide specialized autism treatment and diagnosis are located in urban areas which are not easily accessible by rural residents.
The earlier a child is diagnosed with autism, the quicker the child and the family can begin properly addressing the issues related to diagnosis. In 2015, The University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders began an ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) autism project through their facility. The project uses telehealth technology to train and then to support community primary care providers to increase access to diagnoses and care for autistic children.
The MU autism program is called “ECHO Autism STAT Program”, and it was created to help children and their families find a community-based STAT provider that can examine and diagnose the child without a long wait. Studies have shown that children receiving treatment from a specially trained primary care provider in their own community have the same or better outcomes as children receiving care at academic medical centers where the programs are based.
Dr. William Wright, family medicine physician at the Texas County Memorial Hospital Medical Complex in Houston, recently became a STAT provider after training with the Thompson Center for over a year. The intensive training covers the identification of autism spectrum disorder and the management of common medical and psychiatric concerns in children with autism spectrum disorder.
In addition to the training from The Thompson Center, Wright has achieved reliability in the Screening Tool for Autism.
The screening tool, developed by Vanderbilt University, is used by Wright in a patient room equipped with a child-size table and chairs. The test takes about 30 minutes for a child to complete, depending upon his or her cooperation.
After the screening is complete, Wright presents his findings to other autism professionals via telehealth to determine if an official diagnosis of autism should be given.
“It’s difficult to make an accurate autism diagnosis,” Wright said, explaining the need for specialized autism spectrum disorder training for healthcare providers.
According to Wright, healthcare providers don’t have a “simple test for autism”. Instead, they must observe the how a child responds to a specific set of activities and talk with the child’s parents about a child’s behaviors and social skills.
Wright explained that many times when a young child is at home daily with a parent, the parent may not notice certain behaviors in a child that a healthcare provider or an early childhood education would notice as unusual for the child’s age. Many children with autism are not diagnosed until they are older and in preschool or in elementary school.
“It’s really important to diagnose autism early, so the patient can get an earlier start on speech, behavior, and physical therapies,” Wright said. He noted that community healthcare providers already have connections to the local therapy services which can be helpful for the parents of autistic children.
Wright screens children for autism at his office in Houston. Children may need to follow up for a full diagnostic assessment with The Thompson Center at MU, but Wright, as a family medicine physician, has the opportunity to see the entire family and walk them through the diagnosis and work with the patient on other issues related to their autism.
“Once we know where a child is on the autism spectrum there are many things I can do to work with the child,” Wright said.
In addition to the common social and behavioral issues in autistic children, many also have trouble sleeping, have gastrointestinal issues, and have a significantly higher chance of having an anxiety disorder, seizures, or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Parents from South Central Missouri contacting The Thompson Center may be referred to Wright for a screening. Other healthcare providers or educators that believe a child should be screened can also refer to Wright.
“Parents with autistic children need medical support in their home communities, and now we’re able to help provide that,” Wright said.
For more information about the ECHO Autism STAT screening and healthcare services available through Dr. William Wright, contact the TCMH Medical Complex at (417) 967-5639 or download the brochure ECHO Autism Stat Program with Dr. Wright.