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Texas A&M’s program delivers services to parents of children with autism

child autistic in blue hat and blue jacket playing with wilted leaves in autumn Park

Close to one in 54 children have been identified with autism. Thirty-one percent of children with autism have an intellectual disability. While there is no medical detection for autism, there are early interventions to improve learning, communication and social skills over the lifespan.

However, there are numerous barriers for families to participate in interventions. Many interventions are costly, time-consuming and not accessible for rural families or non-English speaking families.

One solution to overcoming barriers is telepractice. The Coach to Communicate (C2C) program in the Department of Educational Psychology (EPSY) at Texas A&M University adopted this nontraditional method to deliver services to parents of children with autism, including services in Spanish.

“Telepractice allows us to coach families via online tools with no cost for travel and no time lost in traveling. The coach can meet with parents at any time convenient to both, through a computer, smartphone or tablet,” said Sanikan Wattanawongwan, a postdoctoral researcher in EPSY. “Telepractice also minimizes exposure to disease during the COVID-19 pandemic by allowing us to provide services to families without direct contact.”

Through C2C, coaching sessions are provided to families using Zoom. Over the course of three months, parents participate in 10 online meetings where they are taught various techniques, such as incentivizing communication to help improve their child’s social communication skills.

The researchers set communication goals and develop a treatment plan for each child after the initial interview session with parents. Each week, parents are required to record and upload a three minute video before the Zoom session. This provides the researchers a look at how the child is reacting to the interventions.

During each telepractice session, researchers provide parents feedback on ways to improve communication with their child based on the uploaded videos. During the next week, parents implement those suggestions.

“Parents reported that they appreciated receiving encouragement and motivation from the coach, spending more time with their children and having the flexibility to set their own schedule to meet with the coach via an online program,” Wattanawongwan said.

Findings from several studies involving C2C indicate telepractice parent coaching has a positive impact on child outcomes.

Wattanawongwan said another key finding is that children maintained these communication skills over a month past the end of the intervention study.

“The growth observed throughout the telepractice coaching intervention is indicative that long distance, short-term, individualized coaching of authentic communicative partners can have positive outcomes that can be maintained following cessation of treatment and can generalize to untargeted child communication behaviors,” Wattanawongwan said.

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