ICI’s telehealth lab improves access to autism intervention services

ICI's telehealth lab manager Jessica Simacek wearing a headset and looking at a tablet and a client on her computer screen.
ICI’s telehealth lab manager Jessica Simacek uses audio-visual telecommunications technology to assist people with disabilities and their families, notably in Greater Minnesota.

Early identification, treatment, and intervention helps Minnesota’s children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities reach their potential, but families can encounter waitlists up to a year for evaluation services. Part of the reason for this long delay is geography and journey time: Autism evaluation clinics are typically located in the Twin Cities, but families of children with autism live all over the state. Reducing waitlists can be critical for young children with autism because intervention is most effective while the young brain is still developing.

ICI’s Jessica Simacek (pictured), Adele Dimian, and Jennifer Hall-Lande, are collaborating with Amy Esler from the Autism Spectrum and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (ASD) Clinic at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Pediatrics to see if ICI’s telehealth laboratory can help shorten these waitlists and improve access to early intervention among children with autism. Telehealth refers to using telecommunications technology to support long-distance clinical healthcare, health management, and education via devices like smart phones and home computers. Telehealth also reduces the need to schedule appointments with providers; the technology can be synchronous or asynchronous, meaning people with disabilities and their families can either communicate in real time with a medical professional or leave audio-visual messages that professionals can see and hear later.

“Too many children and their families face barriers to accessing needed intervention services,” says Simacek, who has managed the lab since it began a year ago. “I investigate innovative interventions that are timely, efficient, and effective for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. The ICI telehealth laboratory allows us to leverage technology to reach children and families who may live in rural areas or may be on lengthy waitlists for intervention. We also provide training and technical assistance on the use of telehealth, which allows providers, educators, and researchers to use telehealth to improve and extend their practices.”