April is World Autism Awareness Month and for some children with autism, behavioral therapy looks different during the pandemic.
Many therapists have gone to online sessions and teletherapy. Two behavioral health professionals share how they believe COVID-19 will change autism therapy long after the pandemic is over.
Rachel Eddins is a licensed professional counselor and the executive director of Eddins Counseling Group in Montrose and the Heights. Their counseling services are geared toward adults, couples and families, children and teens. Eddins said treating clients through teletherapy is something they have been doing since the early 2000s, so it hasn’t been a major transition.
“For the most part, it’s very similar to in-person therapy except for the shared space,” said Eddins.
She pointed out though that they have participated in a lot of additional training for working with special groups like young children, particularly on research-based practices that alter what would normally be done in the office to online. Parent involvement is more important in online sessions, she said. In Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, for example, the therapist coaches a parent ahead of time, and the parent gets the video ready in a room. During the session, the parent wears an earpiece as the therapist coaches them on how to respond to their young child, like a therapist would do for a session in the office.
“The additional benefit of this approach is that the parent increases their own confidence and skill in working with their young child on a daily basis at home,” Eddins said.
Eddins Counseling Group is now seeing patients only through video and phone.
Eddins said social distancing affects each client with autism differently. “It really depends on the age and primary area of concern as everyone is so unique and individual,” Eddins said, citing that one child may see the change in their normal routine as disruptive while another may appreciate less social interactions.
“Keeping to their schedule and routine and knowing what’s coming next is important. Having that person you know and seeing their face can help them feel secure. That person (the therapist) is the same, these things are the same, even though so much is different,” Eddins said.
Mark Claypool is the founder and CEO of ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy & Education. Based in Nashville, it has more than 150 locations in more than 20 states, including in Dallas. Between 20 to 25 percent of children and young adults that ChanceLight sees have autism. Some ChanceLight locations have continued to see patients in their offices while still maintaining social distancing, deeply sanitizing and following governmental guidelines and mandates because each state and community’s situation is different.
“So, you know, every child is different. You know they say that if you’ve met one child with autism, than you’ve met one child with autism,” said Claypool.
He said that statement is very accurate because children are on a broad spectrum and services and interventions that might help them vary.
“Autism is a very peculiar disability, and there’s really no making up the time. You have a fairly narrow window, particularly with very young children’s language skills, quickly and efficiently and effectively. And children with autism, that the older they get, general rule of thumb is it’s much more difficult to redirect behavior and redirect them to learn certain skills,” Claypool explained.
Claypool said that insurance companies have been “incredibly responsive” to quickly put into effect a lot of policy changes to allow telehealth services. He said the willingness and quick response to needs by both providers and payers show, “This is an incredibly important service that no one wants to interrupt.”
Eddins agreed with Claypool in that teletherapy will take a more prominent role after the pandemic because it helps get past barriers of in-person therapy, like transportation, work schedules and childcare. Being in Houston, she has offered teletherapy for years because of the traffic and spread out nature of the city, the fact that it can take someone longer to get to an in-person session. She added that some clients feel more comfortable in their own space.
As more people start using teletherapy, more innovation and creativity will occur, and it will become an even more effective tool through innovation and creativity, Eddins said.
She said continuing therapy in any crisis is important for a few reasons: keeping the progress that you have already seen moving forward and working on coping skills amid the stressful period in order to lessen the psychological trauma’s impact.
“This helps people to be more resilient,” Eddins explained.