WSU, MSU professors author autism toolkit to guide centers amid COVID-19

By: Jonathan Shead | C&G Newspapers | Published July 7, 2020

 Jacob Kubicz, 5, bursts from the tent while playing with supervisor and Registered Behavior Tech Kathleen Murphy at the Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills.

Jacob Kubicz, 5, bursts from the tent while playing with supervisor and Registered Behavior Tech Kathleen Murphy at the Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

METRO DETROIT — The novel coronavirus pandemic has, without a doubt, forced many sectors of Michigan’s workforce to adapt and change how they operate.

Autism therapy centers across Michigan are among them, and they’ve received a bit of help and guidance from industry experts.

Wayne State University’s Applied Behavioral Analysis Program Director Krista Clancy and Dr. Josh Plavnick, of Michigan State University, co-authored the “Risk Assessment and Mitigation Strategies for Applied Behavior Analysis: Treatment of Children with Autism During a Pandemic” toolkit, bringing together experts to create a multidisciplinary approach to guide autism services during COVID-19.

Clancy said data was a main driver guiding the group’s approach.

“Knowing that things are pretty confusing right now and people are going back and forth, I was really trying to connect it with the data that’s out there. Don’t just make a decision that’s willy-nilly about what you think you should do. What does the data actually say? What are the recommendations?”

Another goal, Clancy said, was to save centers time from mulling over multiple resources.

“It’s really just to be a time saver, I hope, for some of these centers. They have enough to think about. This is not something they need to spend a ton of time researching themselves if the research is there.”

Reena Naami-Dier, owner of the Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills, has already begun using the toolkit, and she agreed it not only saves time, but also includes multiple considerations, as autism therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all service.

“There are so many documents that are kind of talking about the same thing, but it’s really hard to sort through all of that. To have it all in one space has made it really easy for a lot of providers to take it all in,” she said. “It keeps us from having to look through seven or eight different avenues that all say some variation of the same thing.

“A document like this compiles all the stuff we’ve all been trying to do and put it together. Even if you don’t use it to a T, it still has a lot of considerations another provider may not have thought about,” she added.

Naami-Dier created her own version, blending information from the toolkit with other specific information and procedures related to the Spark Center. She’s requiring all staff and parents to read through and e-sign the document to ensure they understand all the center’s new policies and procedures, like daily health screenings, curbside drop-off and pickup, and more.

The Spark Center for Autism closed down March 23, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced an executive order, and reopened to limited operations May 18. During the interim, it provided telehealth services to its clients, which Naami-Dier said caused some difficulties, and even now amidst reopening, the pandemic has caused many things to change.

All social activities, like circle time and structured play, had to be halted. Social goals for each client have been temporarily removed and replaced with more of a focus on adaptive living skills. Communication is still a focus, Naami-Dier said, though it’s much less about the social aspects of communicating now. Having to explain to parents why their child’s goals have been reduced hasn’t been easy.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we have faced is it’s hard to explain to a lot of the kids why they can’t be close to another child, (or) why we’re having to redirect them to give them space,” she said, adding that they’ve also been teaching their clients to tolerate wearing masks and social distance. “Depending on the child and their skill, that has been one of the bigger issues.”

Naami-Dier said there have been silver linings to the readjustments her center has made through the pandemic.

“It’s made us as practitioners think about other challenges that may come up in situations like this in the future. It actually helped us guide new goals for kids we maybe hadn’t thought of before. They’re ones that I think can be utilized in the future moving forward, like being able to teach a child that, when someone else is sick, you have to maintain distance.”

Clancy agrees and hopes her toolkit can continue to guide autism centers on best hygiene practices even beyond the pandemic.

“I’m not sure this is entirely going to go away, the way people are looking at things, and what’s going on with the idea of being a more careful society with infectious diseases,” she said. “Even though (the toolkit) is very specific — the links and data associated are COVID-19 related — I think there are a lot of things that could be useful ongoing as people just think about good hygiene practices during those winter months when people tend to get sick and pass things around.”

For more information and to view the autism toolkit, visit