Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic parked the Mobile Autism Clinic that a small group of Virginia Tech faculty and graduate students had been using to provide services and support to families of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

But members of that group remained undaunted and found a new way to deliver services to an underserved population in far Southwest Virginia.

A switch to telehealth – using such technology as video conferencing to deliver health-related services and information – resulted in incredible success, and that success, along with others from the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic & Center for Autism Research, are in the spotlight as part of National Autism Awareness Month.

Taking place each April, National Autism Awareness Month promotes autism awareness, with an over-arching goal of ensuring that all those affected by autism live the highest quality of life possible. The group at Virginia Tech certainly took that to heart over the past year, using telehealth to see families and individuals more frequently and thus offer more help.

“Once we shifted to telehealth, we were able to see 15 families in three months, when we’d usually see that many in six months,” said Angela Scarpa, the director of the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic & Center for Autism Research and a professor of psychology in the College of Science. “That really cut the time in half because we didn’t have to travel. We didn’t have to worry about the weather. The clients could easily schedule us when they didn’t have to find child care. It really broke down even more barriers than the mobile clinic.”

The success of the group is important, especially during a pandemic, because group members serve the Mount Rogers Community Services catchment area in far Southwest Virginia – Smyth, Wythe, Bland, Carroll, and Grayson counties plus the city of Galax – in which access to services and support for those children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder remains a struggle.

In 2018, thanks partly to grant money from the Malone Family Foundation and also to a sponsorship from the Washington Group Special Care Planning Team, the group purchased and converted a 2004 Itasca by Winnebago Spirit RV into a mobile clinic. Members of the group took the recreational vehicle to these rural areas to hold therapy sessions, perform assessments, and conduct research.

The Mobile Autism Clinic provided much-needed access, but over the past year the group found that telehealth also broke down barriers. However, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Scarpa hopes to get the mobile clinic up and running again by mid-summer, and she continues to work with her group to blend the use of both delivery platforms for an expansion of services and clients.

Angela Scarpa standing outside of the Mobile Autism Clinic
Angela Scarpa hopes to begin using the Mobile Autism Clinic (background) again this summer and combine that with telehealth to reach more families and individuals impacted by autism.

“Both are needed because there are some families and very young children who are difficult to evaluate over telehealth,” she said. “We’re hoping to do some sort of hybrid model, so that we can have that in-person, face-to-face connection with people that is so valuable, but also do more to overcome the scheduling problems and the travel problems by using telehealth.”

Ultimately, the goal is to help as many families and individuals as possible. Yet such an expansion of services and support requires funding. A lot of the families served by Scarpa and her team rely on Medicaid, but Virginia Tech’s status as a “training clinic” prohibits accepting of any form of insurance. The Virginia Tech Autism Clinic thus needs to secure grant money and private donations because many people in these areas lack the financial capability to pay out of pocket.

Fortunately, the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic received significant amounts of grant money over the past year to offset those costs, according to Jen Scott, the rural outreach coordinator for the Mobile Autism Clinic.

“The one good thing that was nice about the funding that we received is that the families didn’t have to pay for the services,” Scott said. “That was a huge plus and a huge breakdown of a barrier that lots of families face.”

The need for funding especially makes this month’s focus on autism spectrum disorder so important. (For those wishing to make a personal donation, please click here.) Scott and Scarpa are using this month to educate the public on all that the clinic and the research center do.

Jen Scott often drove Virginia Tech's Mobile Autism Clinic before the pandemic protocols forced the parking of the clinic
Jen Scott (seen here driving the Mobile Austism Clinic before the pandemic) has been busy using National Autism Awareness Month to educate the public and to raise awareness. Scott is the faculty outreach and grants coordinator within the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic & Center for Autism Research.

As part of National Autism Awareness month, the clinic and the research center are carrying out an activity initiative, encouraging families to get outside and walk and to wear blue – the color of autism awareness. Those who participate may submit photos to be posted on the center’s Facebook page.

Also, Scott is posting an autism-related fact every day on Facebook and Twitter, spotlighting the great work being done by Virginia Tech faculty graduate students and others in the field of autism and including links to any articles about them or their research. In addition, the team continues to publish the center’s weekly newsletter.

All of this builds up to April 23, the day of the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic & Center for Autism Research Biennial Autism Conference.

“The topic this year is ‘Autism in the COVID Era,’” Scott said. “We’re holding it virtually this year from 2 to 5 p.m., and we’ve got some wonderful speakers lined up. It’s free and open to anyone, and it’s a great way for us to connect with the community and also provide them with information about the center and the types of research being done.”

For Scarpa, the topic of autism is personal in nature. Her son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder shortly before his second birthday, and she continues to devote her time, efforts, and resources to help others going through a similar journey.

“After he was diagnosed, I really started delving into what the treatments were and what was available in our area,” she said. “I found that there was very little available. It prompted us [those who work in the Department of Psychology’s Clinical Science doctoral program] to get training and provide training to our students because autism is one of the fastest growing developmental disabilities. So we figured that this is something that all our students need to know about and be trained in, and it really was my impetus to open the clinic and get started on helping those without access to services and support.”

Written by Jimmy Robertson