Thursday, December 31, 2020
Autism and Access to Care During the COVID-19 Crisis
Brian is a 6-year-old boy who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and global developmental delay at age 2. He has no other health conditions of note. Brian lives with his parents and an older brother, who also has ASD, in a rural area 2 hours from the center where he was diagnosed. Brian has a history of intermittent self-injurious behaviors (head-banging, throwing himself onto the floor, etc.) that regularly result in bruising, intense and lengthy tantrums, and aggression toward family and teachers. Brian will occasionally indicate items that he wants, but otherwise has no functional communication skills. Over the past 18 months, Brian's challenging behaviors have waxed and waned. The regional special education program is not equipped to safely manage his behaviors, and there are no in-home or center-based agencies that provide applied behavior analysis (ABA) available. Brian's developmental pediatrician initiated guanfacine (eventually adding a small dose of aripiprazole) and referred the family to psychology for weekly telehealth behavioral parent training to address behavioral concerns using the Research Units in Behavioral Intervention curriculum.1
Brian's behavioral problems decreased during the initial weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, when he no longer had to leave home or attend special education. However, as summer continued, his behaviors worsened substantially (regular bruising and tissue damage, numerous after-hours consultations with his psychologist and developmental pediatrician, and one trip to the emergency department). The intensity of Brian's behaviors (maintained primarily by access to tangible items and escape from demands) made progress with behavioral supports slow and discouraging for his parents. Other psychosocial stressors coalesced for the family as well, including employment loss, limited social support because of social distancing requirements, and illness of one of his parents. The developmental pediatrician continued to modify the medication regimen over the summer, transitioning Brian from guanfacine to clonidine and increasing his aripiprazole incrementally (with clear increased benefit); hydroxyzine was also used as needed during the episodes of highest intensity.
Despite the availability of best-practice guidelines for children with Brian's presenting concerns,2 a confluence of barriers (geographic, economic, ABA work force, global pandemic, etc.) present serious questions for his family and care team related to the next steps in Brian's care. Should he attend in-person school in the fall, knowing that the available program may have limited educational benefit and increase his risk of COVID-19 exposure (not to mention self-injury)? Would the potential benefits of cross-country travel to an intensive behavioral treatment program outweigh the associated psychosocial and economic stressors? How else can the virtual care team support this family?