New therapy for autism eliminates wait times for life-changing care

HOUSTON – One in 68 American children has autism. Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.

Most experts say applied behavioral therapy is essential for helping children improve communication and social skills, but when parents seek help, they are often frustrated by long wait lists for appointments.

Now, a first-of-its-kind provider channels support into homes at the time when it’s needed the most.

Lila and Kai Watai are twins.

“Kai can be a chatty Cathy, and he started that right off the bat, and she wouldn’t really communicate,” said Lauren Watai, Kai and Lila’s mother.

By age 2, Lila’s behaviors set off alarm bells in Watai's head.

“She would kind of point or express her needs in nonverbal ways,” Watai said.

Despite a pediatrician’s insistence that Lila was fine, Watai sought out a specialist who told her Lila had autism.

“We’re going to attack this thing," Watai said. "We’re not messing around."

Watai found a solution on a small screen.

Erica Nolan is clinical director for CSERV, the first in the country to provide telehealth services exclusively for autism. Applied behavioral analysis focuses on changing behaviors and may require many hours of specialized therapy. Time and distance can be obstacles.

“We do have a significant amount of families that are in rural areas and have difficulty obtaining behavioral services," Nolan said. "Some have been placed on waiting lists, I’ve heard, from six months up to a year, even past that."

With CSERV, therapists and parents schedule regular appointments over a computer. During appointments, therapists watch interactions and provide feedback.

“We need to know how to handle unwanted behaviors and how to get good behavior out of her, and good communication,” Watai said.

While applied behavioral analysis is covered by most insurance companies, not all companies cover the telehealth services. A recent study by researchers at Michigan State University found that telehealth programs were helpful in improving a child’s social communication using applied behavioral analysis intervention techniques.

Background on ABA

Applied behavior analysis, also known as ABA, is a methodology of treating human behavior that is supported by research. ABA has been known for treating persons diagnosed with autism and is recommended by the U.S. surgeon general as a safe practice. The relationships between behavior and environment are analyzed and measured to understand the behavioral function. ABA has been proven to increase skill sets, such as communication and social skills, and decrease behaviors that might hinder children from reaching their goals. The principles that guide ABA are the positive reinforcement to achieve behavioral progress. Furthermore, research has shown that an intense hour of ABA can help manage the symptoms of autism in those who receive early intervention. (Source: https://www.cservtelehealth.com/telebehavior-therapy)

Background on autism

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is the name for a group of developmental disorders that varies based on symptoms, skills, and levels of disability. There are two main types of behaviors: restricted, repetitive actions and limited social communication and interaction behaviors. Restrictive and repetitive responses include the following reactions: overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects; interest in specific topics, such as numbers, details or facts. Limited social communication and interaction may include: getting upset by a slight change in routine, lack of eye contact, difficulties maintaining a conversation and using words that may seem out of place. These behaviors can typically be observed by parents or doctors in infants and toddlers, and school staff can recognize these behaviors in older children. A child can be at high risk for ASD or developmental problems if they have a sibling or other family member with ASD, or if they were born premature, or early, and at a low birth weight. Diagnosing ASD in adults can be quite tricky because the symptoms can overlap with the symptoms of other mental health disorders. Nevertheless, it can still be important for adults to get a correct diagnosis to identify strengths and weaknesses and obtain the right kind of help. (Source: