New clinic improves access to timely care for children with autism spectrum disorder

A Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences student works with a standardized patient at WSU’s new Autism and Neurodevelopmental Clinic in Spokane.
A Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences student works with a standardized patient at WSU’s new Autism and Neurodevelopmental Clinic in Spokane, which has helped fill a critical need for improved access to autism care in eastern Washington.

In its first year of operation, the new Autism and Neurodevelopmental Clinic has improved access to timely and high-quality care for eastern Washington children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families, according to the program’s directors. The clinic is operated by Range Community Clinic in affiliation with Washington State University.

The average wait time for an ASD evaluation in Washington state ranges from an estimated 12 months to as much as two years in some places, based on directors’ experience working with providers and advocacy groups across the state. Launched in April of last year, the clinic has been able to evaluate referred patients within four months, ensuring these children receive intervention during their early years of brain development, which dramatically affects their developmental trajectory.

“The clinic has far exceeded our expectations,” said Georgina Lynch, PhD, CCC-SLP, associate professor at the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and one of the directors of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Program of Excellence.

Located on the WSU Spokane campus, the clinic is a partnership between the WSU College of Medicine Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences and Range Community Clinic, a WSU-affiliated nonprofit. The clinic provides diagnostic evaluations and comprehensive treatment planning for children with ASD aged 18 months to 18 years, helping to fill a critical need for more autism services in Washington. In 2023, the clinic received 528 referrals and conducted 308 clinical encounters.

“We were all very aware of the need, but the response has been exponentially more than what even we had anticipated,” said Clinical Director Nalini Gupta, MD, DCH, FAAP.

While the typical appointment no-show rate for specialty pediatric care is about 20% to 30%, Gupta said, the clinic has not had a single no-show since it opened, which is a testament to its value for patients and their families.

“The rapport that we’ve been able to build with each family and the gratitude that they share when they leave, that’s why we do this work,” said Program Director and Associate Professor Lauren Thompson, PhD, CCC-SLP.

Within the first several months of opening, the clinic exceeded its three-year goal of receiving referrals from 15 distinct medical practices in Washington. It now receives referrals from across the state and provides services to children from 11 counties.

The clinic is the first of its kind in eastern Washington to employ a multidisciplinary model for diagnosing ASD where patients see several specialists in one building over the course of a four-hour evaluation. This greatly increases the efficiency of the diagnostic process and minimizes school and work disruptions for patients and their families.

“The responses from patients and their families have been nothing but positive, which goes a long way to show that the model that we have is working and it’s working well,” said Gupta.

This multidisciplinary model meets the needs of children with complex medical problems more effectively. Hearing loss is more common in children with autism than in the general population, but often difficulty listening is attributed to a behavioral issue or overlooked during uncoordinated specialist appointments. With its multidisciplinary approach, the clinic has been able to identify hearing loss in children with ASD and adapt their treatment plans accordingly.  

The clinic also has a growing role in medical education and research at WSU. Speech and hearing sciences students gain clinical experience there, with opportunities planned for medical students and doctoral clinical psychology students from the Pullman campus beginning this September. The clinic will also provide families with opportunities to participate in WSU research that aims to improve the diagnosis and treatment of ASD.

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