Months of lockdown have left a massive backlog of children who show the warning signs of autism, awaiting formal assessment for help.

That’s why Megan Roberts hopes to move autism assessments out of doctor’s offices and into Zoom conferences, using staff who already regularly work with schools and early learning centers. In the process, she also hopes to clear the entire waiting list of 1,224 children requiring autism evaluation in Illinois.

Roberts’ project is one of seven projects that received a share of $14 million in grants from the National Center for Special Education Research. All funded projects aim to support students with disabilities who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Roberts, an associate professor for the Early Intervention in Communication Science and Disorders Research Group at Northwestern University, and her team were awarded a four-year, $3 million grant to develop and validate a protocol based on telehealth to train speech therapists to assess students. ‘ risk of autism spectrum disorders. The use of speech-language pathologists greatly expands the pool of assessors, as most school districts and Early Head Start centers have them, while a 2019 study found that 84% of US counties do not have access to them. to medical diagnosticians of autism.

“I think this is a unique opportunity to develop a potential new diagnostic pathway that addresses issues that were present before COVID, which is, you know, rural communities don’t have access” , to autism diagnostic services, Roberts said.

In Illinois alone, the wait time for autism assessment in children who have already been identified for general developmental delays through early intervention services has more than doubled from four months before the pandemic at 9.5 months last summer.

“That might not seem like a long time, except these kids are 2 years old and it’s basically half or a third of their lives,” Roberts said. “We know that during the first three years of life, because of neuroplasticity, that’s when early intervention is so effective. And so they potentially miss five or six months of intervention because of the pandemic.

“It’s a nightmare, and it’s not just an Illinois problem. … Everyone has a backlog,” Roberts said.

About 85% of the time, parents of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders begin to express concerns about their child’s development long before the age of 3., according to the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. But even before the pandemic, the center found that only 42% had received a developmental assessment to diagnose the disorder by age 3, and 30% of children had not yet been officially diagnosed by age 3. 8 years.

Mental health support

For example, another of the grant-funded projects, led by Kathleen Lane of the University of Kansas Center for Research, Inc.will analyze the behavioral patterns of elementary school students internalizing and externalizing stress and anxiety before and during the pandemic, as well as the referral patterns for special education eligibility for these students.

Lane plans to test an intervention, called “Recognize. Relax. Record,” which aims to reduce students’ symptoms of anxiety and re-engage students socially and academically to help students with or at risk of being diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders.

According to new data from the School Impulse Panel of the National Center for Education Statistics. The panel, which asks schools about their operations during the pandemic, found that older students were the hardest hit: In high schools, more than 30% of schools reported an increase in mental health supports needed for students in special education.

Other grants included: