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Engaging Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Therapeutic Process

Feb 7, 2020

Madhu Sundarrajan, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor of speech-language pathology, has a passion for working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). According to guidelines from the National Research Council, children with ASD should receive at least 25 hours per week of developmentally appropriate educational services. In addition to logistical challenges, 25 hours of services per week is exhausting for both the child and their family. Dr. Sundarrajan and her colleagues believe an effective way to bridge the gap is by training parents to be actively involved in their child’s language intervention. “Actively engaging parents in the therapeutic process really benefits the child and the family as a whole,” said Dr. Sundarrajan.

Prior to coming to Pacific, Dr. Sundarrajan was a faculty member at The University of Texas at Austin where she worked closely with Jessica H. Franco, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCBA-D to establish a training program where parents are taught techniques utilized by speech-language pathologists. “We hold their hand every step of the way until they feel comfortable implementing these techniques,” Dr. Sundarrajan said. Once the parent has a grasp of the techniques, they are able to work with their child to implement the communication skills in a natural setting. As an added benefit, when these skills are transferred from the clinical setting to the home parents see an immediate impact.

One common challenge for children with ASD is difficulty with social communication. Dr. Sundarrajan illustrates a dynamic that frequently occurs between a parent and their child. “Parents in their desire to engage with their children often ask them a lot of questions,” she said. If the child’s language skills do not match the parent’s expectations, both sides will become frustrated. The first lesson for parents is to take a step back and consider their child’s communication level, as identified by the speech-language pathologist. Dr. Sundarrajan encourages parents to target an expectation slightly beyond their child’s current level. She also recommends focusing on incremental steps rather than placing the emphasis on the end goal.

The parent training program, known as Project SKILLS (Skills and Knowledge of Intervention for Language Learning Success), is free for Texas residents, who can participate in-person or via online trainings. Dr. Sundarrajan continues to be involved in the project by analyzing the data and administering the associated webinar series called Project PLUS (Presentations on Learning Unique Skills). Her goal is to launch a similar parent training program in California.

In November, she gave two presentations at the 2019 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention, in Orlando, Florida. Dr. Sundarrajan and Dr. Franco presented “Parent Directed Treatment for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Dr. Sundarrajan, along with Matt Zellner and Dr. Franco, presented “Including Parents in IPP: Evaluating a Parent-Training Program for Language Intervention in Children with ASD.”

about the author

Anne Marie H. Bergthold  

Anne Marie H. Bergthold is the Marketing Coordinator for Pacific's Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy.

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