Tele-assessment of young children referred for autism spectrum disorder evaluation during COVID-19: Associations among clinical characteristics and diagnostic outcome

Autism. 2022 Dec 16;13623613221138642. doi: 10.1177/13623613221138642. Online ahead of print.


The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has traditionally been made through in-person evaluation. While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted access to ASD services, there has been remarkable growth in research focused on novel ASD diagnostic practices, including the use of telemedicine. We implemented a standard ASD tele-assessment evaluation procedure, including use of a novel remote clinician-coached, caregiver-delivered ASD assessment tool (TELE-ASD-PEDS; TAP), with the goal of continuing to provide diagnostic services to young children and their families during the pandemic. We examined the relationship between child characteristics and diagnostic outcome for 335 children, ages 14-78 months, who received ASD tele-assessment conducted by psychologists and pediatricians in an outpatient clinic of a Midwestern academic medical center. We found that clinicians could make a determination about ASD diagnosis for most children (85%) evaluated using tele-assessment. Child clinical characteristics, including TAP scores and clinician ratings of ASD symptoms, were related to diagnostic outcome (i.e. diagnosis of ASD, no ASD, and Unsure about ASD). When all clinical characteristics were examined together, the presence of specific repetitive behaviors predicted ASD diagnosis. We also found that the TAP is effective for making an ASD diagnosis when used as part of comprehensive tele-assessment evaluation in children ⩾ 36 months of age with delayed language. Our study adds to an increasing body of research supporting use of tele-assessment for diagnosis of ASD. Although further research is needed, telemedicine may help families from different backgrounds and geographic locations to access high-quality diagnostic services.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; diagnosis; health services; tele-assessment.