COVID-19 has forced a need to think innovatively to continue providing vital services to the patients at Thornford Park Hospital. The stress that we all have experienced through social distancing, wearing of PPE, and general uncertainty, have arguably taken a greater toll on individuals with Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC). Whilst the task of continuing to deliver therapy has never been more complex, the need has also never been greater. Whilst socially distanced therapy remains to be effective, the need to use face coverings and alter the physical structure of sessions, can unsettle individuals with ASC who thrive in stable environments with predictable routine. To overcome some of these complexities, Thornford Park began trialling the use of remote working technology, to deliver Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) to several patients. This short article will provide an overview of how SLT benefits patients with ASC, before highlighting the benefits and restrictions of remote therapy.
SLT is an essential treatment for the continued development of individuals with ASC. It is a practice that can be tailored to an individual’s specific needs, broadly focusing on three areas: social communication skills, relationship skills, and assessment of communication and language skills. The ability to develop individuals in these three areas provides an effective and sustainable way to aid rehabilitation. Improvement of non-verbal skills, conversation, and assertiveness, provides individuals with the tools to significantly improve their personal relationships and general social interactions.
Teletherapy provides the ability to safely continue delivering therapy, whilst limiting the negative effect of face coverings, and restrictions necessary to support social distancing in face-to-face sessions. Using a computer, with staff supervision, patients at Thornford Park have undertaken six weeks of teletherapy using Microsoft Teams. Using a webcam and microphone, this platform has proven highly effective, enabling the use of interactive tools such as animated presentations, videos and quizzes. Feedback from patients has been extremely positive, highlighted by the questionnaire feedback below:
Feedback suggests using technology as an interface can be equally as effective as face-to-face therapy for some individuals. Whilst limited in its ability to develop face-to-face confidence, online sessions may actually encourage improved interaction with some ASC patients, who struggle with social skills. Using technology as a filter can enable a graduated approach to patient rehabilitation, enabling patients to develop an understanding of SLT techniques, without the pressure of face-to-face conversation. Furthermore, teletherapy can act as a short escape, reducing stress. Going forward, a blended form of therapy including both remote and face-to-face therapy may benefit not only the patient experience, but Thornford Park’s ability to adapt to any future crisis.
Whilst teletherapy initially seemed to be a contingency tool to continue therapy, the positive effects have suggested it has value as a permanent practice. In addition to its clinical benefits, teletherapy also promotes flexible working for employees, reduces travel costs, and enables a more efficient use of office space. Although early in its implementation, teletherapy has the potential to expand beyond SLT therapy, into other departments.