A new effort is in the works to help train doctors and other health care providers to better serve individuals on the spectrum.

Using web conferencing and other virtual technology, the first-of-its-kind training program will bring working physicians together with autism experts for biweekly, two-hour sessions in order to learn about the developmental disorder and commonly associated issues like constipation and sleep difficulties.

“Our aim is to improve quality of care and access to care among children with autism by mobilizing a community of primary care providers who are trained to meet their needs,” said Kristin Sohl, medical director at the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders who is leading the project.

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Called ECHO Autism, the six-month course will emphasize a “whole-person” model of care for kids with autism and include sessions with a clinical psychologist, child psychiatrist, parent educator, social worker and a clinical dietician. During the sessions, doctors will have an opportunity to get input on their own patient cases, those behind the effort said.

The project is patterned after a method already used to remotely teach doctors how to better address specialized medical issues like hepatitis C, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain, but this is the first time the approach will be used to focus on autism.

ECHO Autism training will begin in March and is limited to physicians in Missouri, but Sohl said she plans to expand the offering nationally and internationally.

“Primary care doctors and nurses are the heart and foundation of pediatric medical care,” Sohl said. “Through ECHO Autism, we want to empower these providers to care for children with autism and other complex neurodevelopmental disorders. When these general practitioners feel confident in screening for autism and caring for children affected by the disorders, more children with autism will have access to high-quality autism care.”