Scott Center for Autism Treatment makes big advances nationally with the telehealth initiatives AutismAdvisor.org and ScreenOurKids.org; local focus
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Courtenay Porter is director of external relations at The Scott Center for Autism Treatment on the Florida Tech campus. Boyd Mark is director of telehealth at The Scott Center. Years in the making, AutiusmAdvisor.org and ScreenOurKids.org are big successes, reaching populations around the nation. The former had about 5,000 page views when it launched in 2015. Now, it’s on track to reach 350,000 to 400,000 views. Presently, The Scott Center has ‘about a half–dozen therapists providing online services to clients in as many states’ as part of is pilot program.
By Ken Datzman
BBN BREVARD BUSINESS NEWS
Telehealth, because of its cost–effectiveness and its ability to reach large numbers of people through a variety of electronic devices, is seen as a new frontier in medicine. Telehealth is projected to see strong adoption in the years ahead, especially as reimbursement barriers come down.
Insurers are scrambling to find ways to reduce patient expenses. Digital communication seems to be one alterna- tive to traditional face–to–face consultations, at a time when the health–care work force is stretched to its limits in most states.
Telehealth is now beginning to provide much wider access to health care, particularly for families with children with autism spectrum disorders.
Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
One local STEM university is leading the way in telehealth and has ambitious goals as it looks to the future, providing behavioral health services more broadly across the nation, and also locally.
“We have a trifecta of factors that can enable Florida Tech, The Scott Center, and Brevard County to be recognized as a global center of excellence in telehealth for behavioral health and for autism treatment,” said Boyd Mark, director of telehealth for The Scott Center for Autism Treatment at Florida Tech in Melbourne.
And he said the “three factors are almost impossible to replicate anywhere else.”
The first factor is The Scott Center’s affiliation with Florida Tech’s College of Psychology, “where some of the most published scientific researchers in the world on the subject of autism treatment are located. We have experts who can scientifically say — at a gold–standard level that will satisfy pediatricians and doctors — that a certain therapy works or it doesn’t work.”
He added, “And we have also the technology capability to be able to build a telehealth platform to handle hundreds of thousands of people. Thirdly, we have a network of thousands of therapists around the world who have either physically done their training here or have taken their board certification training through Florida Tech online. So our telehealth therapists don’t necessarily have to be here.”
A new University of Iowa study, published recently in the journal “Pediatrics,” shows that parents with children on the autism spectrum are able to have a specialist address challenging behavior in these children by interacting over a computer, and at less than half the cost of receiving similar care in person. Moreover, there are a limited number of professionals with the training and experience needed to work with these children, the study says.
The group studied 107 children ages 21 months to 6 years old with autism spectrum disorders or other developmental disabilities who were treated between 1996 and 2014.
The children were divided in three groups: 52 kids treated between 1996 and 2009 who had a behavior consultant come to their home; 23 children treated between 2009 and 2012 whose parents went to a clinic near their home to be coached via telehealth; and 32 children who were treated between 2012 and 2014 as part of a trial in which their parents were trained in “functional communication training,” a type of applied behavior analysis treatment, via telehealth coaching at home.
Researchers found that not only are specialists able to successfully train parents to use applied behavior analysis procedures using telehealth — and at a fraction of the cost — but they are also able to provide the training to families in outlying rural areas who might otherwise not have access to care.
Geography shouldn’t limit anyone’s ability to receive services. “There is a big generational shift in the way people are adopting health–care services and that is why the telehealth growth curve is on an upswing,” said Mark. “And it’s all being facilitated by the ubiquity of mobile devices and high–speed networks. So we are really on the cusp of something that is starting to grow exponentially.”
He added, “There is a whole generation of people coming up who have never known life without a tap–and– swipe interface.” Mark also said that states are starting to pass “parity laws” that require insurance companies to reimburse for online health services “if those services have been scientifically proven to be equally as effective” as in–person office visits.
“Medicaid is recognizing that in order to be able to provide services for all the people who need them, and do so in an affordable way, telehealth is the solution. We knew the environment for providing actual services would be changing. So this is the path we’ve taken,” he said.
The Scott Center for Autism Treatment, a 10–year–old nonprofit entity, has positioned itself as an early leader in telehealth providing information and services to children and families in multiple states. “Right now, our busiest telehealth therapist is a Florida Tech program graduate who lives in Rhode Island,” said Mark. “She works with patients in Michigan, Nevada, and Florida. As is common in all telehealth practices, there are licensure requirements that must be met.”
Entrepreneur Edward “Ed” and Cheryl Scott decided to fund the creation of The Scott Center at Florida Tech in 2009 as a result of their experience with their son, Reece Scott, who was diagnosed with autism early in life. Former U.S. Rep. Dr. Dave Weldon was also a key partner in the creation of The Scott Center, securing funds from the Health Resources and Services Administration.
“They wanted a place where people could go and get free information that was evidenced–based,” said Mark.
About five years ago, the Scotts and Dr. T. Dwayne McCay, now Florida Tech’s president, got together to discuss ways to increase access to services at The Scott Center. The Scott Center was at capacity. “And the waiting list was only getting longer. The visionary leadership recognized that getting health–care services online is the future,” said Mark.
Courtenay Porter is director of external relations at The Scott Center. She said The Scott Center’s “early intervention program caps out at about 25 children. Our social skills program, which runs during the school year, has about 50 kids. In the summer, we offer Camp Epic, which is a therapeutic, academically focused camp that serves 20 to 25 kids. So throughout the entire year we have about 100 kids in our programs. That puts us at capacity.”
The Scott Center is a 22,000–square–foot LEED–certified facility. The space includes classrooms, meeting areas, and offices. The interiors feature a lot of uplifting colors and resonate a playful feeling.
An optimized learning environment is vital for every child. For autistic children, the importance of the environment is magnified, as are the benefits that can be achieved through architecture and design. The Scott Center’s autism–friendly design includes a playground.
In order to meet a growing demand for its services, The Scott Center has created cutting–edge websites such as AutismAdvisor.org and ScreenOurKids.org, and they have been successful reaching people. The planning for the two ventures included years of research, surveys, and work with focus groups and families.
“When we started AutismAdvisor.org in 2015, we had a total of about 5,000 page views. This year we are tracking 350,000 to 400,000 page views. That’s huge. There is a big need for the information we’re providing to families,” said Mark. The sites contain more than 200 custom videos organized around various autism topics.
Mark has attended many early childhood development conferences over the past two years, “letting people know that we have services available online. And we have sent more than 200,000 emails in the last two years to early childhood development associations, preschool associations, and teacher foundations informing them of our services. The response has been terrific.”
In 2018, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that 1–in–59 children in America were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, according to the CDC.
Mark, who has a background in technology product development and business strategy, was hired about four years ago to build telehealth platforms at The Scott Center.
After the rollout of AutismAdvisor.org, The Scott Center followed up with the launch of ScreenOurKids.org. Today, that site has experienced more than 15,000 downloads. “People really recognize that it can work,” said Mark, adding, “There have been 50,000 views of a video of the early signs of autism in babies. This is an example of the popularity of one video we have produced at The Scott Center with our experts, ensuring that it is all evidence–based information.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening all children for autism at the 18– and 24–month well–child visits, in addition to regular developmental surveillance. This type of screening can identify children with significant developmental and behavioral challenges early when they may benefit most from intervention, as well as identify those with other development difficulties.
Mark said less than half of children in America are screened for autism. “And that’s an issue because if kids receive intervention before grade school because of neuroplasticity (the brain’s capacity to change and adapt), their symptoms can be ameliorated or abated very significantly. Their trajectory for life is changed.”
He continued, “Research shows that 50 percent of the kids who receive intervention will be indistinguishable from their peers by the time they get to grade school. If they don’t receive intervention, 2 percent will be indistinguishable. So for 98 percent of kids, it will just be a process of managing their symptoms throughout their life. As a result, it will have a huge impact on that particular family, on the health–care system and on the school system. So the ability to screen, identify, and take action early is absolutely essential.”
Porter recently participated in the Florida Kids and Family Expo in Orlando. “We had a booth at that event and we had ScreenOurKids.org displayed. There was a lot of interest in that site because husbands and wives were looking at it as a tool to help prepare them as new parents. So I found that very encouraging. Parents are taking a proactive stance on screening.”
For screening to be effective, it must be applied to all children — not only those with symptoms, says the American Academy Pediatrics. It’s important to note that screening isn’t diagnosing, said Mark. If your child has a positive screen for autism spectrum disorder, it doesn’t mean he or she will be diagnosed on the spectrum.
Mark said The Scott Center has “about a half–dozen therapists now providing online services to clients in as many states” as part of its pilot program which kicked off in 2018–2019.
“We are looking to really expand that in 2020 and 2021. And one of the places it makes the most sense to expand is in our own community. There are plenty of people in our community who need these types of services. We are now really focused on providing services in Brevard — our home. It presents a great opportunity to partner with schools, with families, and with community groups to demonstrate the effectiveness of these online services.”
Locally, The Scott Center offers Teen WISH scholar-
ships. “Generally,” said Mark, “there is a lack of autism
services for teens.” Teen WISH is a 12–week program for 13– to 19–year–olds. The online program focuses on building skills that teens with autism spectrum disorder need to live a more independent and meaningful life. The program is individualized for each participant.
The Teen WISH scholarship is a fund that pays for evaluations and services for families who otherwise could not afford them. It is funded by people in the community and has allowed more than 600 families “to receive life–changing treatment.”
Mark said as The Scott Center looks to the future, “we plan to have a huge telehealth presence in five years. We have set goals. We have been successful with our ventures and we would like to be even more successful in getting information out and raising awareness about autism. We are pleased with our results.”