UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Nobody ever thinks that they’ll have a child with autism. Yet, according to the National Autism Association, the number of children affected by the disorder has increased steadily in the last 20 years. Today, one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism.
Unexpected diagnoses leave parents searching for resources and treatment options to help their child. While this can be stressful for any family, military families who have children with autism face unique challenges.
“Military families move three to five times more than other families,” said Lt. Col. Eric Flake, a developmental pediatrician for the U.S. Air Force. “It is not uncommon for us to diagnose a child with autism weeks before families move to another base.”
The constant moves make it difficult for parents of children with autism to locate effective treatment programs and early intervention services. Additionally, Flake said that a number of families may be stationed abroad where resources are limited and they are separated from extended family and support systems.
Recognizing this as a real problem for military families, Flake’s colleague, Scott Aikens, a developmental pediatrician working with the U.S. Navy in Europe, reached out to Penn State’s Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness for help.
“These families had children that were being identified as having autism and then they were faced with the very difficult decision about whether to remain in Europe and not really have access to services that could help them with their child, or return to the United States,” said Cristin Hall, assistant professor of school psychology and faculty affiliate for the Clearinghouse. “So, we were asked to develop programming that could help parents make better choices about what they decide to do in these types of circumstances.”
The result was a collaborative, three-tier program known as TeleConsult.
Learning and research
Created as a consultation transitional care program, TeleConsult is a pilot research program that provides military families with guidance and information regarding their child’s autism diagnosis. It also allows Hall to study how to provide services to families from a remote location using assisted technology and has served as a way to provide training for selected students enrolled in Penn State’s school psychology graduate program.
Advanced doctoral students serve as consultants and hold virtual sessions with families on a weekly basis. Once a family joins the project, they complete an intake interview with an assigned consultant and complete an Introduction to Autism online learning module.
“We work primarily with families who have recently received a diagnosis of autism, usually within the past year although the program has expanded to include ‘veteran’ families who received the diagnosis years ago who still need answers,” Hall said. “We ask them to complete a learning module so that we are on the same page in terms of what autism is and basic terminology and language.”
The module, which provides information from the latest research regarding autism, also goes over common myths and questions about the developmental disability. Then, consultants observe the parent and child complete simple interaction tasks together such as blowing bubbles — all via an online tool known as Cloud Visit.
“That is my favorite part,” said Megan Runion, a doctoral student in the school psychology program and a TeleConsult consultant. “We actually get to observe the parent-child interaction and see what that relationship looks like and how it functions. It’s not something you normally get to see as a school psychologist working in a school setting.”