I think most of us agree that technology changes our social interactions. The daily flurry of “tweets,” “likes” and “snaps” can make us feel more engaged with our world than ever. At the same time, we probably feel isolated sitting next to a person who has their face buried in a smartphone.
So what does a highly technological exchange like telepractice mean for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who typically require social interaction guidance and have restricted behaviors?
The core characteristics of ASD include “deficits in social communication and social interaction and the presence of restricted, repetitive behaviors.” As a result, people with ASD struggle with a variety of behaviors like joint attention, verbal and nonverbal communication, restricted interests and routines, and high sensitivity to sensory input. That’s a wide range of things to cover in treatment.
In addition, speech-language pathologists use many different treatment methods with these clients. The National Professional Development Center identified 27 evidence-based interventions for ASD. Some of these approaches require physical assistance. Others focus on a client’s environment. Treatment might also target subtle skills such as interpreting a partner’s eye gaze and tone of voice.
The remote nature of telepractice versus the “hands-on” nature of some tools means that SLPs must evaluate each client’s needs, treatments already in use, and ways to modify treatments for telepractice, and look at options better suited for telepractice. Be aware and ready for potential obstacles—how to address eye contact when you’re using a webcam, for instance, or if the equipment accurately conveys subtle changes in body language and tone of voice—ahead of time.
However, there are also advantages. Telepractice interaction may be less overwhelming to a client with ASD, for example, or using technology may hold his interest more so than an in-person session.
Obviously, autism and its treatments require flexibility. Fortunately, telepractice offers just that. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh outlined various technologies and clinical applications for telerehabilitation. These include more-direct “teletherapy,” to less-direct “teleconsultation,” “telecoaching,” and “teleplay.”
You can use some techniques—like social narratives, technology-aided instruction and video modeling—through telepractice without many extra steps. Interventions including peer-mediated instruction, parent-implemented intervention and pivotal response training already require indirect approaches, so modifying them for telelpractice won’t take much more effort than applying them for a specific client in face-to-face sessions.
Emerging research in telepractice treatment for ASD clients already shows success in both direct and indirect interactions. One case study gives positive results for two clients with ASD. One subject received services through “active consult,” in which a student clinician was coached and monitored by a remote supervising clinician using Bluetooth technology. The other client received telepractice services and responded more favorably to those than he did to onsite intervention.
Another study compared traditional onsite intervention to a hybrid model of direct onsite and indirect telecoaching services. They found that gains made through traditional therapy could be maintained as well or better in a model that also incorporated telepractice.
We still have a lot to learn about how to use telepractice to serve clients with ASD. However, developing evidence reinforces something we know from other settings: We are most successful when we analyze and individualize our services to fit a specific client.
Nate Cornish, MS, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual (English/Spanish) clinician and clinical director for VocoVision and Bilingual Therapies. He is the professional development manager for ASHA Special Interest Group 18, Telepractice; a member of ASHA’s Multicultural Issues Board; and a past president and vice president of ASHA’s Hispanic Caucus. Cornish provides clinical support to monolingual and bilingual telepractitioners around the country. He also organizes and presents at various continuing education events, including an annual symposium on bilingualism.