Training Early Intervention Providers to Screen for ASD
October 31, 2023
By: Sherri Alms
Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) provides special education services to eligible infants and toddlers from birth until their third birthday. Part C services are mandated to take place within the natural environment, meaning interventions must take place in settings where an infant or toddler naturally spends their time such as their home, the community, or their daycare.
Teachers, service coordinators, speech-language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses, social workers, and psychologists are among the professionals who provide those services. Because they provide critical services to children, they often are in close contact with parents and develop a trusting relationship. That relationship sets up a natural opportunity for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) screenings to take place. According to several studies, early intervention providers have identified two professional development needs: screening for autism and speaking with families about autism.
In 2021, OAR awarded a grant of $1,700 through its Graduate Research Grant Program to Sarah Wiegand, then a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, to create an online training program to meet those needs and evaluate its efficacy.
Wiegand designed the training to improve the knowledge and confidence of early intervention providers in screening for autism and working to improve child and family outcomes. She developed the content for the three-hour online module using the latest evidence on ASD, best practices in professional development, and information gathered from qualitative interviews with Part C early intervention providers.
The module contained three sections:
Each section contained a warm-up to help participants reflect on their current knowledge, a presentation of content by the researcher, an activity to practice and apply what they learned, and a formal reflection piece.
Wiegand recruited service coordinators from Babies Can’t Wait, a state-wide early intervention program for infants and toddlers with special needs. As she noted in her final report, she only had 14 participants instead of the 30 she had planned for due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary effects, such as busy schedules and taking care of family. Those participants were primarily white women, which does reflect the majority of early intervention providers across the country. However, Wiegand suggested in her final report that future studies should increase participant diversity.
This study suggests that a short online training designed for early intervention providers can increase their confidence in their ability to screen for ASD and engage in conversations with families, including those from diverse cultural and language backgrounds. While participants did not make statistically significant gains in knowledge, they did increase their mean score. Wiegand noted in her final report that it will be important to consider how best to measure provider gains for future iterations of this research.
In their evaluations, 85% of participants rated the module as either accessible or very accessible, and 92% of participants rated the module as either engaging or very engaging. All of the participants rated the module content as aligned or completely aligned with the learning objectives.
In her final report, Wiegand wrote that she has improved the module based on participant feedback. A second study is underway examining the impact of the online learning module with service coordinators in Georgia.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.