Dr. Claudia Preuschoff is a pediatrician in Poplar Bluff. She often treats children from rural communities in her area, especially those who may need more than primary care.
“I just had a referral last week from a nurse practitioner in a much more rural area,” Preuschoff said. “The question was 'Do you think this child has autism, and if so what are we going to do about it?'”
According to a study by the CDC, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses in the United States more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.
In rural areas - where there are few medical specialists - the increase in identified cases of autism can be especially difficult to manage.
“There are probably some things that I'm not covering because we don't have that available locally,” Preuschoff said. “It makes me think a little harder about what resources may be necessary for each individual child.”
Dr. Kristin Sohl, Medical Director for MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, said Preuschoff is not the only doctor who feels lost when it comes to providing families with the next step.
“We as providers have to be learning all of these different disease processes and treatments and all this stuff and so there's not a lot of room left over to know about every single resource that's out there,” Sohl said.
Sohl is leading a new program at the Thompson center called ECHO Autism. It’s designed to take knowledge from specialists who treat children with autism and bring it to primary care providers in other communities.
Every other Wednesday, pediatricians, child psychiatrists and other primary care providers from across Missouri spend their lunch break participating in the web conference to learn how to provide better care for their patients with autism.
And it’s not just a lecture from the experts. Providers talk about their patients and get advice from both the Thompson Center staff and from each other.
“Each one of the participants is actually learning from one case as we discuss it,” Sohl said. “So that can be exciting and we’re able to extrapolate out that knowledge in various ways.”
Preuschoff said ECHO Autism has not only helped her provide better care in her office, but also connect families to resources she hadn't known about.
“I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day,” she said. “For example, sleep training for children with autism. Kristin was able to email me some really nice brochures that I’ve started using with my families when we talk about sleep maintenance issues and things like that.”
The doctors and psychiatrists who take the training won’t become autism experts, but Sohl said primary care providers can offer more than a diagnosis for children with autism.
“I'm trying to empower primary care providers to do what they do best,” Sohl said. “Which is take care of families, take care of the medical concerns, get them resources and allocated to different things and get them launched.”