ICI's Telehealth Lab Improves Access to Autism Intervention Services

Tue Dec 18 2018
Lab manager Jessica Simacek working in ICI's telehealth laboratory.

Early identification, treatment, and intervention helps Minnesota's children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities reach their potential, but families can encounter waitlists up to a year for evaluation services. Part of the reason for this long delay is geography and journey time: Autism evaluation clinics are typically located in the Twin Cities, but families of children with ASD live all over the state. Reducing waitlists can be critical for young children with autism because intervention is most effective while the young brain is still developing.

ICI's Jessica Simacek (pictured), Adele Dimian, and Jennifer Hall-Lande, are collaborating with Amy Esler from the Autism Spectrum and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (ASD) Clinic at the University of Minnesota's Department of Pediatrics to see if ICI's telehealth laboratory can help shorten these waitlists and improve access to early intervention among children with autism. Telehealth  refers to using telecommunications technology to support long-distance clinical healthcare, health management, and education via devices like smart phones and home computers. Telehealth also reduces the need to schedule appointments with providers; the technology can be synchronous or asynchronous, meaning people with disabilities and their families can either communicate in real time with a medical professional or leave audio-visual messages that professionals can see and hear later.

"Too many children and their families face barriers to accessing needed intervention services," says Simacek, who has managed the lab since it began a year ago. "I investigate innovative interventions that are timely, efficient, and effective for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. The ICI telehealth laboratory allows us to leverage technology to reach children and families who may live in rural areas or may be on lengthy waitlists for intervention. We also provide training and technical assistance on the use of telehealth, which allows providers, educators, and researchers to use telehealth to improve and extend their practices."  

ICI's telehealth lab is not limited to early intervention and evaluation. Simacek and Rachel Freeman also use telehealth to train organizations on Positive Behavior Support (PBS) for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Known as the TelePBS model, it helps connect organizations in Greater Minnesota with ICI trainers and other organizations, most of which are based in the Twin Cities. As a result, many organizations and individuals have been able to participate in TelePBS training.

The telehealth lab also helps train Fellows from ICI's Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities Program (MNLEND). MNLEND is helping develop the next generation of knowledgeable, interdisciplinary leaders (known as MNLEND Fellows) in the neurodevelopmental disabilities field—and telehealth is an emerging part of Fellows' training. Simacek, a former MNLEND Fellow, and Dimian, a current MNLEND Post-Doctoral Fellow, now mentor MNLEND Fellows on research and technical assistance telehealth. MNLEND Fellows who participated in research at the telehealth lab have gone on to present at multiple national conferences and publish articles in research publications, says Simacek.