UTSA project helps families, clinicians transition autism therapy to telehealth services

UTSA faculty train over 40 clinicians through project

SAN ANTONIO – A University of Texas at San Antonio project is helping autism therapy transition to telehealth by training clinicians as the need for the service has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the things we’ve been investigating since 2013 really was telehealth and how we can use telehealth to expand services, to augment services and to really just improve overall what we’re doing for the community,” said Leslie Neely, associate professor of educational psychology at UTSA.

Last year, clinicians at the Autism Treatment Center were trained on telehealth by UTSA faculty from the Department of Educational Psychology.

“Telehealth five, 10 years ago -- it was really just for rural areas and out of necessity if they could not drive to reach their care or their medical professional. Now, we’re seeing that it really can be integrated seamlessly into everyday life and even as part of the future treatment model,” Neely said.

Neely said telehealth is crucial in keeping children on track during the pandemic.

“I think what would have happened is a lot of those treatment gains, especially for these children who need these additional services, we really would have seen that decrease in everything that they’ve learned -- their social communication strategies, increasing their problem behavior, reduction and just all of these huge strides they’ve made already,” Neely said.

Neda Diaz said her 5-year-old daughter, Alexa, who has autism spectrum disorder, has received services from the Autism Treatment Center for two years. Her lessons moved to online amid the pandemic.

“They gave me the option to do telehealth because I didn’t want her to regress with all the progress that she had already had, so we decided to do it,” Diaz said.

Diaz said they had never used telehealth services before.

“My daughter’s nonverbal. So one thing for me that was very important to know is if she knew certain objects,” Diaz said.

Diaz said telehealth has worked for her family.

“Being able to actually do telehealth and sit down with her and do, like, a matching type game -- she was able to show me all the words that she actually did know,” Diaz said.

The university received a $50,000 grant for this project from the COVID-19 Response Fund, a community fund jointly managed by the San Antonio Area Foundation and the United Way of San Antonio.

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