The grants will fund studies that focus on using telehealth to improve care management and access for families of children with autism.

ASF grants fund studies focused on telehealth use during the pandemic

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 By Victoria Bailey

June 08, 2021 – The Autism Science Foundation’s (ASF) recently announced fourth round of COVID-19 Research Grants will fund projects that focus on telehealth use during the coronavirus pandemic.

The grant program was launched during the early stages of the pandemic to support researchers who were struggling to continue their work when their institutions shut down. It eventually expanded to fund research about the effects of COVID-19 on people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“At the start of the pandemic, our focus was on keeping existing research from being shut down, but now we’ve pivoted to funding studies that examine how we can use what we’ve learned through the natural experiment of telehealth and teletherapy to continue delivering resources to the autism community in the most efficient and effective ways possible,” Alison Singer, co-founder and president of ASF, said in the press release.

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“It’s also critical that we understand the unique mental health needs of people with autism who have been disproportionately impacted by the challenges and trauma of the pandemic.” 

The grants will be divided among two organizations that focus on telehealth and two that focus on mental health treatment

 The telehealth-oriented recipients are Joshua Anbar, PhD, MPH, of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in Arizona, and Michele Villalobos, PhD, of the University of Utah. 

Andar’s research focuses on expanding telehealth evaluations in children with ASD. A large part of ASD assessment is cognitive testing. When the majority of assessments turned virtual due to COVID-19, though clinicians embraced telehealth, it was difficult to carry out cognitive testing virtually.

The study will explore the operability of the Naturalistic Observation Diagnostic Assessment (NODA) tool that has been used during virtual assessments, based on the Kauffman Brief Intelligence Test. 

The funding will provide resources to validate the tool, making it possible to conduct assessments successfully in a virtual environment. This would allow families to receive cognitive testing through telehealth, helping those who may not be able to attend in-person visits.

The grant will help improve NODA and eventually help researchers to expand its use to older children and adults. 

Villalobos will use the funding to improve telehealth access for low-resource families who face challenges to accessing care. Researchers say families in rural areas, Hispanic families and families on Medicaid have not used telehealth services as much as other families despite the 80 percent increase in the use of telehealth during the pandemic.

Villalobos plans to study the sociodemographic factors of families who use autism services before and during the pandemic to see how certain aspects, such as socioeconomic circumstances, affect their telehealth use. Understanding the limitations that some families face due to social determinants of health can contribute to the improvement of telehealth tools and help reduce disparities when it comes to accessing care.

The ASF grants will also fund Kathryn Hauschild, PhD, of Stony Brook University in New York and Emily Neuhaus, PhD, of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute in Washington. These projects will focus on the effects of pandemic-induced isolation on the mental health of adolescents with autism, and the ways that pandemic-related trauma has affected children and adolescents with autism, respectively. 

The funding from the grants will support the use of telehealth and teletherapy to improve online evaluations for children with ASD. Telehealth and mHealth tools have also been found to improve behavioral health outcomes in children with autism.

pilot program launched in 2020 by Mightier and Magellan Healthcare showed how mHealth games reduced aggressive behavior in participants and helped the children manage their stress and frustration.

Supporting ASD research, particularly in the realm of telehealth usage, as ASF is, has the potential to increase access to telehealth for many families while also providing care and support to children with autism.  

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