When the UVA Telemedicine division was building a pilot program to help deliver healthcare services to communities in rural Virginia, autism needed to be on the agenda.
“When you talk to rural school systems and ask them to identify their key challenges, one of the first things they say is ‘autism,’” said David Gordon, Director of Telemedicine for the UVA Health System. “Teachers need support and families need support.”
The incidence of autism diagnosis has risen substantially in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control now estimates that autism affects 1 in 68 individuals. This rise in diagnosis has left many families and school systems struggling to cope with the challenges of a behavioral condition that can require highly skilled, intensive treatment. For rural communities with limited resources, the challenges can be particularly acute.
So Gordon and his colleagues turned to the Virginia Institute of Autism (VIA), which has a 20 year history of developing programs that effectively address the core symptoms of autism.
“For many people who suffer from it, autism is a condition that requires very focused and consistent intervention to be treated effectively,” said Ethan Long, Executive Director of VIA. “We discovered very early on that the more we coordinate treatment, with families and with school districts, the better the outcomes for our students.”
A key component of VIA’s programs over the years has focused on training the trainers – equipping teachers and parents and healthcare professionals with the techniques and practices that will foster communication, self-care, and coping skills in persons with on the autism spectrum. The telehealth initiative will now allow VIA to do some of that work remotely.
The pilot program, called eBACKPAC (Better Health and Care for Kids, Parents and Communities), will be funded by a four-year, $1.1 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). It will create community health centers based in two schools in Bland County in the next year, and in two schools in Martinsville the year after that. The centers will provide primary care and health education programs to the local communities.
Services on site will be augmented by special-needs care provided remotely by VIA and UVA Health through state of the art, secure video conferencing and diagnosis technology. If successful, the program can serve as a model for using technology to bring enhanced healthcare services to underserved rural communities.
“There has not been much research yet on the effect of telemedicine initiatives on autism,” said Long, “but what’s out there is very promising. This is the reason that HRSA is interested in the project. If we can demonstrate the effectiveness of this program, there is huge potential here to help schools that don’t have the resources to adequately address this need.”
“This is our 20th Anniversary year,” Long continued, “and part of our strategic focus for the future is to extend the reach of our services into more school districts and more communities throughout Virginia. We’re very excited to be participating in this project.”