SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — The Mercer University School of Medicine Savannah campus (MUSM) is committed to helping children and families with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has made it a little more easier to do so.

The NIH gave the MUSM faculty members Sarah Rotschafer, Ph.D., and Carolann Curry, MLIS, a grant in the amount of $142,500 per year for up to three years to develop education and resources that will lead to early diagnosis and intervention therapies for ASD in rural Georgia.

NIH’s National Library of Medicine (NLM) awarded the grant for the project, titled “Autism Spectrum Disorder in Rural Georgia: Education and Resources.”

With the grant Dr. Rotschafer and Curry will create an interactive website, called the Autism Toolkit, to help parents with children on the spectrum, adults with ASD learn more about ASD and find resources within their communities.

According to the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, on average children in Georgia are diagnosed at 4 years and 5 months, although ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months of age or younger. An early diagnosis helps to ensure children receive timely and appropriate care. 

Sarah Rotschafer, Ph.D. Photo provided.

“We’re going to provide information about autism. So if, for instance, you’re a parent in a rural area, who has a kid that you’re a little concerned about, maybe they’re doing an unusual behavior or maybe not quite caught up to the other kids, you could go on our tool-kit and see if that’s in line with the signs of autism,” Dr. Rotschafer told WSAV.

“It will then give information about follow-up steps that you can take and it will provide information about resources that are in your area. For some places there’s not a lot around and you might have to drive for like hours and hours, but if it turns out that there is something nearby, hopefully our website will catch it.”

The Autism Toolkit will also help health care providers in rural and underserved areas aware of the resources that are available.

“Research has shown, and some of our research too, has shown that some people may not be proceeding with referral steps because they either lack resources, like they might have a kid that they think might need testing but they don’t have a place to send them so they don’t do testing. Or, they’re just not testing as regularly as would be ideal. So, we have some follow-up steps for health care providers so that their patients who are showing signs of autism can end up where they need to be,” said Dr. Rotschafer.

The website will also have an education component that is aimed at physicians and healthcare workers throughout Georgia. 

“Our goal there is if anybody is a little fuzzy on just what autism looks like, they could take our modules and learn from those and hopefully get a better understanding. I think there is some sort of dated material about autism that some people might not have updated for themselves.”

She continued, “There’s kind of a famous quote out there in autism circles that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. It’s so heterogeneous between people who are affected and so kind of being able to look for and understand a variety of symptoms is really helpful, so we hope to do that.”

The website falls under Mercer University’s vision statement, “The grand challenges of rural health are resolved through education, research, and community engagement.” and the University’s mission is to educate physicians and health professionals to meet the primary care and healthcare needs of rural and medically underserved areas in Georgia.

“There really aren’t a lot of autism resources in rural areas. A lot of autism awareness resources that are generated by large or nationwide organizations tend to focus on cities because they can get more people with whatever resources they are putting out there. As a corollary of that, any solutions that are designed for people with autism or the families of people with autism kind of come from the mindset of city people.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but those solutions don’t necessarily address the needs of people living in rural areas, so we’re hoping our website will step in there.”

With the tool-kit they are also going to recruit community members across Georgia who either have autism or who have been affected by autism such as a caregiver of a child or a family member. 

“We’d really like to draw from their lived experience to create the best tool-kit that we can. We’re kind of shooting for a what I know now that I wish I knew then perspective that we offer to anybody who has a child showing signs of developmental delay or possibly autism. That way they can kind of get treatment easily and quickly, and also to hopefully be able to connect with some people facing similar circumstances.”

Mercer University’s School of Medicine was established in 1982 to educate physicians and health professionals to meet the primary care and health care needs of rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia. Today, more than 60% of graduates currently practice in the state of Georgia, and of those, more than 80% are practicing in rural or medically underserved areas of Georgia.