Telehealth program engages learners on the autism spectrum and their families

Like many young people, Ben was not crazy about the idea of learning how to do laundry. As a learner in Caldwell University’s Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis, Ben is receiving virtual in-home instruction through the center’s new telehealth model developed to meet the needs of the learners during the pandemic.

While trying to come up with a way to make doing laundry fun for Ben, graduate student Carleana Hickey had a lightbulb moment: playing sound effects on Ben’s computer when he carries his laundry bucket.  “This made doing laundry so much more fun,” said Dr. Sharon Reeve, director of the center.  Hickey’s innovation is but one of many ideas that faculty members and graduate students are incorporating into their remote teaching for children, teens, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recently, another learner made a whale, using blocks similar to Legos, and wrote three sentences about her creation, dubbed “Whale-ita.” Throughout the afternoon, Whale-ita was invited by her creator to participate in the scheduled online activities. “We’ve had quite a few bellies laughs with our kiddos even though they are only with us virtually,” said Reeve.

Whether at home or on campus, the center always has the same focus—to provide the goal-oriented, individualized, science-based approach to learning of applied behavior analysis. In New Jersey, the state with the greatest prevalence of ASD, the center’s nationally renowned faculty members is preparing graduate students to offer the most effective instruction at schools and nonprofits for those with the disorder.

Learners at the center range from ages five to 20. Instruction is developed through a team approach with faculty, graduate students, clinical supervisors, and parents working in close collaboration. During these days of remote teaching, the center provides four to six hours of instruction and sends activities home for the learners to do with their parents. Graduate students provide lessons on topics such as self-care, including handwashing and teeth brushing, doing chores, remaining productive each day, creating a daily schedule, and effective resolution of behavioral issues.

Theme weeks are being featured. During the first week of virtual instruction, the timely topic of healthcare/health care professions included virtual hospital tours and videos that illustrate the ways in which viruses can spread. To make the Earth Day theme more fun, a learner went on a scavenger hunt to find organic objects that could be recycled or composted.


Their first interactions via computer screens drew mixed emotions from the learners. That was to be expected since virtual learning was something new, explained Reeve. “Over time we showed all our learners that we could have fun at home while still learning about ‘awesome stuff,’” she said. A wonderful discovery has been that parents are instrumental in making all this happen. “With our help, they are teaching their children,” said Reeve.

Various models are used; parents work with the graduate students and they present to faculty, or parents record videos of home activities so faculty members can assess the learners’ skill levels and provide recommendations. “The videos are such very fun to watch! We have never been closer to all the families because we now spend so much time remotely in their homes,” said Reeve. This has been a beneficial learning experience for graduate students, who are developing strategies to help parents interact effectively with their children. It has also given them the opportunity to work with parents who typically do not have the time to train due to work obligations or the distance of their homes from the center in Caldwell. “Parents seem very appreciative of the training we are providing to help them through an average day,” said Reeve. As a result of this new way of learning, the center’s faculty members are evaluating a virtual post-pandemic instruction model.

Reeve and the other faculty members in the Department of Applied Behavior Analysis are proud of the graduate students who have stepped up to help them develop the telehealth model. They are “one big family in the center” and are doing all they can to ensure that the learners and their parents are getting all of the support and resources they need, said Reeve. “We are proud to still be making a difference in their lives—just in a somewhat different format.”


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