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My son was 8 years old when he was formally diagnosed with autism, but it wasn’t because his issues weren’t noticeably obvious when he was younger. Being a single mother with Medicaid for our health insurance, it took years to find a doctor willing to accept him as a patient. Then, even once he was diagnosed, he still waited several more months for a therapy spot to become available.
So when I heard about Sprout, which promises to help all kids with autism get diagnosed sooner and then provide them with expert level care, I was intrigued. But I also wondered if it was too good to be true. How could a website do what many major institutions can’t even do, and would it really reach children who are falling through the cracks?
What is Sprout?
Sprout is a tech-enabled platform that aims to “solve the broken, outdated, and costly process families face when seeking treatment for children,” by bringing quality autism care to kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Armed with a vast network of providers in conjunction with offering a free autism assessment, Sprout is able to evaluate and diagnose at-risk children quickly, so that they can immediately match them with therapists who work collaboratively to create personalized, at-home, treatment plans. By reducing delays in diagnosis and treatment, Sprout attempts to set kids up for success by getting them the help they need, without delay.
How does Sprout work?
In an eight-year-long study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Waisman Center, researcher Maureen Durkin analyzed the census statistics of 1.3 million children and found that kids who had the lowest socioeconomic development were the least likely to be diagnosed with autism; an indication not that children of a lower economic status are less likely to have autism, but rather that they are not afforded access to the care that they need.
That alarming statistic is why Sprout’s first goal is to get all children with autism diagnosed quickly, in part by eliminating some of the barriers that might prevent a child from obtaining a diagnosis. Accepting over 100 insurance plans, Sprout will also evaluate uninsured children for free. In as little as a few days to a few weeks at most, Sprout’s partnering specialists will provide a diagnostic autism evaluation, even coming to a child’s house if their family is unable to travel, a benefit that will greatly serve many low-income and single-parent households.
Once a child is diagnosed, Sprout works with the child’s insurance company to obtain available benefit coverage and then connect kids with the therapy they need in three main areas of service:
- Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Speech and language therapy
Therapists are direct employees of Sprout, rather than sub-contractors. Sprout's compensation and benefits package to all of their therapists has allowed them to attract experienced caregivers who provide high-quality care. Because Sprout has such a large network of qualified therapists, there are currently no waiting lists for children who need services.
How safe is a patient's data?
Sprout's practice centering around an online portal means that everything that a family needs to access care for their child is all managed in one place. It also opens up questions about data privacy.
However, some general information you provide to Sprout—such as your email address—may be shared, sold, or rented to third parties.
We tried Sprout for ourselves
The Sprout website is easy to navigate, with clear header tabs. The “Our Services” tab takes you to the therapeutic services that Sprout provides, as well as the autism screening process.
There’s the standard “Our Story” and “Our Team” tabs, and the surprisingly impressive “More” tab that offers options such as an insurance checker and an ABA therapy cost calculator, aimed to eliminate hours on the phone with your insurance company. There's also a link to the M-CHAT Screening which is an initial screening tool used to determine if a more thorough autism screening should be considered, and a series of helpful informational posts relating to autism.
Plus, because we are still immersed in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, there’s a COVID-19 tab that explains how Sprout is working to keep patients and their families safe by following sanitization protocols and regular health screenings, all under the strict watch of their in-house infectious disease doctor.
Bonus: There is a chat feature if you have questions and a readily available phone number if you’d rather call; both features that busy parents will appreciate.
Scheduling a screening
Wanting to give Sprout the full opportunity to show me what it could do for parents seeking help for their kids, I decided to approach the site as if I was brand new to the autism world.
Clicking first on the “Services” tab and then on the “Autism screening” link, I was met with a few basic questions before being taken to a scheduling screen. I selected Wednesday at 9:30 am, and the whole process took less than two minutes. However, the Sprout website then confirmed my call time at 4:30 am, which was a bit shocking.
But within minutes of scheduling, my phone rang and a friendly person named Alex introduced himself as a client concierge and wanted to know if there was anything further that he could assist me with. After telling him that 4:30 am might be too early for me, we had a good laugh and he promised to get that checked out and assured me that no one would be calling at 4:30 am. He was ready to answer any questions that I might have about the upcoming screening process.
As I continued to navigate my way through each of the site’s different therapeutic service areas, the process proved to be very similar in fashion; answer a few simple questions, and then schedule a call to set up an evaluation.
There were a variety of days and times available to schedule the initial call consults, and once evaluated and deemed in need of services, Sprout then connects families with their very own care coordinator, who will collaborate with world-class physicians, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs), and therapists to create a “flexible, personalized, and tailored approach” to providing children with the therapy they need through in-home services, and ongoing telehealth options.
Also, once a child is established with their Sprout care team, the online platform will continue to be used to track a child’s progress, coordinate care, and refine treatment plans.
It is important to note that although Sprout will evaluate and, if warranted, provide an autism diagnosis to any child regardless of their ability to pay, Sprout’s therapy services are not free. They require insurance, private pay funding, or under certain circumstances that may be eligible for financial assistance.
Would we recommend Sprout?
A full evaluation of Sprout would require me to change all of my son’s care providers over to Sprout’s—something that I’m not in a position to currently do. However, Sprout’s mission, connections with different therapists, and effort to safety operate during a pandemic won me over. I were still in need of services for my son, I wouldn’t hesitate to give Sprout a try.
Before I saw the site for myself, I wasn’t all that optimistic. Knowing what my son went through to obtain a diagnosis and acquire treatment, it felt impossible to believe that Sprout could really make the process easier, and the whole idea of a tech-based platform seemed rather impersonal.
However, after immersing myself into the Sprout website, seeing everything they have to offer, and speaking with Sprout employees in a variety of positions, I’ve changed my mind. Sprout really does aim to meet the needs of every child on a personal level, no matter where they are on their journey—and in many ways it appears that they are succeeding.
In fact, the morning after I let Alex know that I wasn’t trying to make a 4:30 am consult appointment, I got an email from the CEO himself apologizing for the site glitch and assuring me that it had been fixed immediately.
I do worry a bit that Sprout may be inclined to diagnose a child with autism in the hopes that the child will then move into their paid therapy services program, but overall I think the benefits of reaching an underserved population outweigh my worries.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.