Community partners create training for parents of children with autism

This August, members of the Brock and Niagara communities had the unique opportunity to learn ways to enhance communication between children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and their parents.

Thanks to a new two-year pilot project from Brock’s Department of Applied Disability Studies (ADS), Bethesda and Pyramid Educational Consultants, participants learned how to implement the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS®) with children who face challenges communicating.

The program, which transitioned to an online experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was made available at no charge to ADS graduate students and local families thanks to funding from the Faculty of Social Sciences Dean’s Discretionary Fund and in-kind contributions from Bethesda and Pyramid Educational Consultants.

The session brought together experts, clinicians and trainees, many of whom were current and past members of ADS.

“It was a really wonderful opportunity to have many of our past and present students work together with community partners and parents in a meaningful way,” says Julie Koudys, Assistant Professor in ADS, who co-ordinated the project.

She says the community partners shared the same goals of “increasing access to evidence-based services for parents of children with autism, providing meaningful parent training during the pandemic, enhancing community capacity by providing training for professionals in the field and creating meaningful experiential learning opportunities for ADS students.”

The project grew out of Koudys’s ongoing research into the use of picture-based communication systems to help children with autism spectrum disorder communicate more effectively.

“I have also been exploring effective ways to help parents learn how to use these and other strategies to improve their child’s communication and reduce challenging behaviours,” says Koudys. “This study provides the opportunity to explore how parents might be trained in an evidence-based communication strategy (PECS) online — something that hasn’t been explored before.”

Marie-Chanel Morgan, an ASD master’s candidate, says the opportunity helped her apply the theory she’s been studying.

“My biggest takeaway from this project was the opportunity to receive specialized training on functional communication skills and experience in implementing an effective parent training protocol,” says Morgan, who will be able to apply the training hours to the requirements for becoming a board-certified behaviour analyst.

She also observed that the program showed a deep level of commitment to supporting local families.

“I praise this project for giving so many families in neighbouring communities the opportunity to learn ethical, effective and evidence-based methods to communicate with their children,” says Morgan. “So much effort and heart was put into developing this project and I could see it all through connecting with the researchers and families.”

Jen Copeland, one of the parent participants, says that she wanted to complete the training to help her stepson communicate.

“The training provided me with the tools to help him and gave me confidence to be able to carry out the stages with him,” she says.

This initial feedback suggests that the project has accomplished what the researchers aimed to do, though they will know more after the data from the upcoming four- and eight-week checkpoints with families has been collected and analyzed.

“Our hope is that families are getting access to high-quality, beneficial training that will allow them to begin teaching their child to communicate effectively,” says Melissa Isaak (BA ’01), Clinical Supervisor at Bethesda. “At Bethesda, we understand that collaboration is an essential way for us to develop services in our region that best support the unique needs of the clients and families we serve.”

“This partnership is an opportunity for us to align with like-minded organizations like Brock and Bethesda to come together in a shared mission of helping populations of all ages with communication and behavioural support,” says Krysten Spottiswood (BA ’13, MA ’18), Pyramid Consultant with Pyramid Educational Consultants of Canada.

“As a Niagara native and former Brock graduate, this project is especially close to my heart as it allows me to give back to the community by providing a valuable service to families and their children and to help in building service capacity in the community through the training of local providers and students.”

Koudys is hopeful that next year’s training might be completed in person and in a model closer to the original plan of a two-week summer camp for children and parents, but is open to adjusting the program as needed.

“We would very much like to offer some version of this service over the long term,” says Koudys. “If the data indicate that the service is beneficial to children and families, we hope to continue it.”

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