Online tools and assessments can speed up the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new survey of the research in the field.

The survey showed that using Internet-based tools in health care — a field known as telehealth — has the potential to improve not just diagnosis, but other services, in autism care, when used alongside existing methods, according researchers led by experts from Swansea University Medical School in the United Kingdom.

The researchers note that, using current methods, it can sometimes take several years after someone first seeks help before an ASD diagnosis is confirmed. This could be due to a shortage of expertise, to several appointments being necessary, and the fact that the process can be very stressful for individuals who might later be diagnosed with ASD, they hypothesize. As these are specialist services, they can also require a lot of traveling, for families and experts alike, the researchers added.

And all these delays in diagnosis can lead to poor outcomes for both the families and individuals, they noted.

Telehealth is already used successfully in areas such as radiology, cardiology, mental health, and for monitoring patients with diabetes and hypertension. However, the new study is the first to review the existing literature on the use of telehealth to support ASD diagnostic assessment, the researchers claimed.

For the new study, the research team surveyed 20 years’ worth of research in fields related to autism and telehealth, narrowing down an initial sample of 3,700 articles to 10 for close study.

They examined which telehealth approaches have been used in the diagnosis and assessment of ASD in children and adults and how they compare with face-to-face methods.

The review revealed two main approaches to using telehealth:

  1. Real-Time method: For example, videoconferencing, which enables a range of health professionals in different areas to meet in real time with the family to assess the child or adult, reducing the need for travel or multiple appointments.
  2. Store-and-Forward method: This method involves providing a way for parents and caregivers to upload videos of a child’s behavior to a web portal, enabling clinicians to see a child in their every day surroundings, which then better informs the assessment.

The team found evidence that these two approaches:

  • are acceptable to both families and clinicians;
  • have good diagnostic accuracy;
  • enable families from a wider area to access professionals;
  • reduce costs for accessing care;
  • enables the natural behaviors in the home setting to be observed;
  • may enable both parents in divorced families to contribute to the diagnostic process.

“Telehealth can potentially improve the efficiency of the diagnosis process for ASD,” said Professor Sinead Brophy of Swansea University Medical School. “The evidence reviewed in our study shows that it can reduce delays and improve outcomes, when used in conjunction with existing methods. It could be of particular benefit to those with clear autism traits and adults with ASD.”

“Telehealth methods allow for collaboration and the sharing of experiences between the family, education, and ASD experts,” she said. “They can be just as good as face-to-face methods in terms of satisfaction for the patient, family, and clinician.”

Telehealth methods also “reduce the time to diagnosis, particularly for those with more severe autism where there is good agreement in terms of the diagnosis compared to the face to face methods,” added Ph.D. student Manahil Alfuraydan of Swansea University Medical School, primary author of the research. “Our study highlights the potential of telehealth. Larger randomized controlled trials of this technology in relation to ASD are warranted.”

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

Source: Swansea University