KU researchers receive $2.4 million grant to increase access to and evaluate online interventions for autism spectrum disorder

As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and forced many children with autism spectrum disorder to be schooled at home, professionals and families became concerned that children with disabilities might not be receiving adequate and specialized instruction because teachers had limited time or resources needed to support all children and parents.

At the same time, telehealth interventions – evaluations and care delivered by a professional online instead of in-person – increased, too.

Now KU researchers will have the opportunity to explore telehealth therapy and supports for families and children with ASD, including those children with what are called restricted and repetitive behaviors. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has awarded a five-year, $2.4 million grant to a team of researchers led  by Brian Boyd, director at the Juniper Garden’s Children Project, to increase access for families to telehealth interventions for children with autism.

“We're still learning about whether an intervention that is delivered by telehealth to children with autism is more effective than one done in person,” Boyd said. “There's some evidence to suggest it may be as equally as effective, but I think one of the things that is happening now is there are many more advances in telemedicine and telehealth in part because of COVID. Therefore, we definitely have to find ways to support families in getting access to the technology and being able to use the technology appropriately to help their child.” 

Boyd said that telehealth has the potential to reach more people than in-person interventions. Telehealth appointments can eliminate barriers such as transportation issues, for example.

“A big piece of the telehealth intervention is to promote access, so we can reach more underserved communities who haven't historically been able to participate in research and benefit from research participation,” he said. “An important, big focus of the grant is to try to reach those underserved communities and families.”

For children with restrictive and repetitive behaviors, a feature of autism spectrum disorder, the lack of evidence-based interventions to address such behaviors is an important aspect of the project. However, Boyd also said that there is controversy in the field about whether restricted and repetitive behaviors should be treated. To address that, the project aims to seek and use the perspectives from autistic stakeholders as part of intervention planning.

“The focus is really less about decreasing repetitive behaviors, and more about promoting the ability of young autistic children to successfully navigate their environment as needed,” he said.