LOS ANGELES – For families of children with developmental disorders, access to early intervention programs can make a huge difference in their overall development. However, many families in smaller cities or rural areas do not have convenient access to such programs, often located at larger universities in big cities.
To address that need, researchers at UCLA are using telemedicine to remotely help families learn skills that let them work at home with their children to gain essential social skills. One such study involves children with tuberous sclerosis, a rare genetic disorder that often causes development issues. Scientists found early signs of autism in this group of infants who, until now, would never have received crucial early intervention.
“The earlier you can intervene and enrich the child’s environment, the more likely you are to actually exact change in brain development,” said Shafali Jeste, MD, a pediatric neurologist and an associate professor of psychiatry, neurology and pediatrics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a principal investigator at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment. “Our unique remote delivery allows families to begin that early intervention from their home, which is really important for those who live far away from major academic research centers.”
The therapy – called JASPER – is a science-backed technique that uses play-based therapy to enhance children’s development and behavior. “We do a very careful assessment of where children are, developmentally, and then train parents to implement this method into their everyday interactions,” said Connie Kasari, PhD, professor of human development and psychology and a co-founder of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
In the yearlong trial, parents, who have been trained in the technique by UCLA therapists, record videos of play sessions at home with their children. Each week, families review the videos with the therapist via telemedicine and discuss their child’s development needs.
Mary and Brandon Crawford are participating in the UCLA study from their home in Arkansas with their son John Michael, 3. “We’ve seen huge improvements in John Michael’s language skills and his ability to interact and tell us what he wants and how he’s feeling,” Mary Crawford said. “Seeing that growth and advancement makes our hearts soar because, as parents, we want to do whatever we can to help our son. This trial empowers us to do that, even if we are thousands of miles away from the therapists we’re working with.”