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Development of an Internet Survey to Determine Barriers to Early Diagnosis and Intervention in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Brasher SN1*,Elder JH1
  1. College of Nursing, University of Florida, USA
Corresponding Author: Susan N Brasher,College of Nursing, University of Florida, USA Tel: 352-273-6512 E-mail: suez7272@ufl.edu
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Abstract

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are complex neurodevelopmental disorders with symptoms presenting in early childhood. Although a reliable diagnosis can be made by age 2, most children with ASD are not diagnosed until age 4. Delayed diagnosis subsequently leads to delayed treatments, thus impacting long-term outcomes for children with ASD. Additionally, alternative therapy use in ASD is common but lacks empirical evidence. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to describe the use of a modified Delphi method to construct an Internet survey for healthcare providers to identify perceived barriers to early diagnosis and intervention, as well as alternative therapy use in children with ASD.

Methods/Findings: Survey questions were developed based on an extensive literature review. Preliminary survey questions were presented to an interdisciplinary Community Advisory Board (CAB) of ASD professionals (n=10) to obtain feedback. A modified Delphi method elicited group feedback regarding the survey content. Three independent rounds and analyses were performed during the process. The final survey was constructed online using REDcap (Research Electronic Data Capture) and disseminated to healthcare professionals via the Internet. Limitations include the preliminary nature of this instrument development study and small sample size.

Conclusion: The researchers used the Delphi method’s structured communication process to collect, group, sort, and rank data in a series of sequential questionnaires distributed to individuals with expertise on the topic. This was an effective method of establishing consensus among providers regarding clinical questions. This work provided insight to the clinical problem of barriers to early diagnosis and intervention in children with ASD, as well as alternative therapy use. Subsequent research should further characterize these barriers in order to reduce or eliminate them, empirically evaluate the most common alternative treatments, and improve long-term outcomes of children with ASD.

Keywords

Autism spectrum disorders; Early diagnosis; Barriers; Alternative treatment; Early intervention; Survey; Delphi

Introduction

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are complex neurodevelopmental disorders with no conclusive cause or cure to date [1]. While there is no cure for ASD, several interventions exist that are focused on improving ASD symptoms and thus subsequently long-term outcomes. Symptoms of ASD fall on a continuum and manifest in early childhood. These include deficits in social communication and interaction across multiple contexts, specifically deficits in developing and understanding relationships, social-emotional reciprocity, and communicative behaviors [2]. Early diagnosis and treatment in children with ASD is associated with improved outcomes. Studies have shown that interventions in children with ASD before the age of three have a significantly greater impact than interventions provided after the age of five [3]. Although a reliable diagnosis of ASD can be made by age 2, most children with ASD are not diagnosed until age 4 [2]. This delay in diagnosis and treatment often results in desperate parents seeking their own interventions that often include alternative therapies that lack sufficient empirical validation. Therefore, it is critically important to examine the discrepancy between when a child can be diagnosed with ASD versus when a child actually receives an ASD diagnosis. Additionally, there is great need to identify the types of alternative treatments utilized by parents of children with ASD. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to describe the process of using a modified Delphi method to construct an Internet survey aimed at determining healthcare providers’ perceptions of barriers to early diagnosis and intervention, as well as alternative therapy use in children with ASD.

Modified Delphi method

The Delphi method is a widely used technique that gathers data from respondents within their domain of expertise [4]. This method includes a group communication process aimed at achieving convergence of opinions on a particular topic [4]. In addition, this method consists of three distinctive characteristics: anonymity, controlled feedback, and group response [5]. Anonymity is used to reduce the effects of socially dominant individuals and is achieved by dispersing separate surveys to individuals [5]. Controlled feedback is achieved by undergoing several iterations where participants are given the results of previous iterations and further feedback is elicited [5]. Lastly, group response is the collective summarization of responses and represented in a final product represented to the group.
A modified Delphi method is one that is similar to the traditional Delphi method in terms of intent and procedures (i.e., a series of rounds with selected experts) [6]. However, the main modification is the beginning of the process with a set of carefully preselected items drawn from areas, such as reviews of literature and interviews with selected content experts [6]. Additional modifications, such as the practice of a synchronous modified Delphi method where anonymity is absent, have the advantage of overcoming inherent weaknesses of the Delphi method (e.g., time constraints, low response rates). A modified Delphi method is an important data collection methodology for researchers to utilize when seeking to gather information from those individuals immersed and imbedded in the topic of interest [4].

Methods

IRB approval was obtained prior to conducting this study and written informed consent was obtained from all participants. Initial survey questions were developed based on an extensive literature review. Preliminary survey questions were presented to the interdisciplinary Community Advisory Board (CAB) in a group process with the preliminary paper format survey to obtain feedback. Meetings were audio-recorded, transcribed, and analyzed by two independent coders. The modified Delphi method was used to elicit feedback from the CAB regarding the content of the survey. Following each iterative round, feedback received from the CAB was used to reconstruct the survey to be presented to the CAB at successive meetings. Three independent rounds of the modified Delphi method were performed with three independent analyses (Figure 1). The final survey (Figure 2) was constructed online using REDcap (Research Electronic Data Capture) and disseminated to healthcare professionals throughout the state of Florida via the Internet.

Participants

A Community Advisory Board (CAB) consisting of 10 (n=10) ASD professionals was assembled to assist with the development and dissemination of the final Internet survey. CAB members consisted of seven (n=7) females and three (n=3) males.
Nine (n=9) CAB members were Caucasian (90%), while one (n=1) CAB member was African American (10%). The CAB included a board certified pediatrician, neuropsychologist, occupational therapist, behavioral psychologist, certified pediatric nurse practitioner, director of a center for disabilities, professor of early childhood education, community health worker, founder of a community-based clinic, and senior autism researcher. CAB participants were identified through purposive sampling techniques to ensure the CAB represented ASD professionals from various fields.

Setting

A total of three face-to-face synchronous CAB meetings were conducted at the local community-based outreach center HealthStreet over the course of nine months. HealthStreet is a community-engagement program that aims to decrease health disparities through the partnership of community members with researchers. Additional services provided by HealthStreet include health workshops, screenings, referrals, and research opportunities [7]. Thus, this agency was perfectly suited to the purpose of this study.

Results

Results of the modified Delphi method included the construction of an Internet survey that was subsequently disseminated to healthcare professionals throughout the state of Florida. The final survey (Figure 2) consisted of a total of 15 questions, which included open-ended and closed-ended questions. These questions addressed provider qualifications, provider role, barriers to early diagnosis in children with ASD, barriers to early intervention in children with ASD, and the use of alternative therapies in children with ASD. The Community Advisory Board (CAB) identified several barriers to early diagnosis and intervention that families of children with ASD encounter. These are presented in Table 1 and include low socioeconomic status, limited medical insurance, remote geographical location, limited transportation, limited parental education including not knowing where to seek help, culture differences, time constraints, language constraints, limited provider education, lack of family acceptance, and provider hesitancy. Similar barriers were identified to early intervention (Table 1) with the addition of a delay in diagnosis, technology availability, pediatrician resistant to services, and provider availability. Lastly, alternative therapy use in children with ASD (Table 2) emerged as a prominent concept. Identified alternative therapies included the gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet, probiotics, omega-3 fish oils, supplements (i.e., melatonin), acupuncture, acupressure, aromatherapy, massage, light therapy, music therapy, play therapy, sensory integration therapy, art therapy, chelation, chiropractic, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, vitamins, and cransiosacral therapy.

Discussion

The Delphi method uses a structured communication process to collect, group, sort, and rank data in a series of sequential questionnaires distributed to individuals with expertise on the topic [8]. This is an effective means of establishing consensus among providers regarding clinical questions [9]. A modified Delphi method allows for insight to the clinical problem of barriers to early diagnosis and intervention, as well as the increasing use of alternative therapies in children with ASD. Additionally, the use of a modified Delphi method in this study was instrumental in the identification of the target sample for the final Internet survey subsequently distributed throughout the state of Florida.
Findings from this modified Delphi method and survey are an important first step to informing healthcare professionals about alternative treatment use and barriers to early diagnosis and intervention in children with ASD. This knowledge, in turn, can help reduce and eventually eliminate these barriers, inform credible treatment choices, and facilitate future research to improve long-term outcomes of individuals with ASD and their families. Subsequent work should include a larger and more geographically diverse sample of ASD professionals. Future research should also further characterize the barriers that have been noted as well as others that may not have been mentioned in this work in order to reduce or eliminate them. In addition, there is a need to empirically evaluate the most common alternative treatments in order to inform parents and clinicians with the ultimate goal of improving long-term outcomes of children with ASD.

Funding Agency

UF Health Clinical and Translational Science Institute

Conflict of interest

All authors declare there is no conflict of interest.

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