Telemedicine-aided therapy helps parents of children with developmental disorders, including autism

Parents and therapists collaborate to customize therapy to advance social skills

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.”

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Mary Crawford plays with her 3-year-old son, John Michael, using a therapy method designed to close developmental gaps and improve signs of autism early in life. A clinical trial allows Mary to implement the therapy at her home in Arkansas while working with therapists at UCLA via recorded play sessions and telemedicine.

Behavioral therapist Maria Pizzano (left) works with the Crawford family, who live in Arkansas. A clinical trial allows families to learn the latest therapy methods and implement them at home using telemedicine technology and the guidance of trained therapists.

Mary Crawford records a play session with her son, John Michael, on a tablet. It is part of a clinical trial that allows families to receive the latest developmental therapy from anywhere in the country.

Carly Hyde conducts an assessment of 3-year-old John Michael’s cognitive and social skills. A play-based therapy method developed by researchers at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior is customized for young children exhibiting signs of autism and is delivered remotely using recorded play sessions and telemedicine.

Dr. Shafali Jeste reviews video play sessions with Mary and Brandon Crawford, whose 3-year-old son has a genetic disorder that puts him at high risk for autism. The Crawfords are part of a clinical trial that allows families to receive the latest autism therapy from their homes to help close developmental gaps.

Dr. Connie Kasari led the development of a therapy that combines developmental and behavioral therapy to improve the signs of autism and possibly even prevent an autism diagnosis when the play-based method is implemented early in life.

John Michael Crawford, 3, has a genetic disorder that puts him at high risk for autism. His parents have seen drastic improvements to his cognitive and communication skills after a clinical trial allowed him to receive the latest developmental therapy developed at UCLA from his home in Arkansas.

UCLA Health