Rowan researchers aim to improve autism services

Rowan researchers aim to improve autism services


A small team of Rowan University researchers is tackling a project to modernize the way direct service providers collect data to improve services for adults with autism. 

Funded with a two-year, $396,601 grant from the N.J. Department of Health, the project will explore the use of smart speakers, wearable sensors, speech-to-text technology and video software to capture accurate information, increase user satisfaction, and ease employees’ workload. 

Direct service providers, or DSPs, support individuals with complex needs, enabling them to live in the community. New Jersey’s contracted service agencies struggle to attract and retain these workers, and turnover is high. 

Using a research framework she once used to improve data collection for combat medics, Dr. Patrice “Polly” Tremoulet wants to design an easy-to-use, paperless system that could make caregiving more gratifying and enjoyable.

A Rowan assistant professor and human factors psychologist, Tremoulet is first seeking input from the people who will use the new system. 

“We’re talking about an overworked, high-turnover population that truly cares about clients and wants to do the best thing,” Tremoulet said. “I want to provide tools that help people do their jobs more effectively.” 

Tremoulet’s team includes Dr. Christina Simmons, a Rowan assistant professor and board-certified behavior analyst whose research focuses on autism and severe behaviors; and Dr. Andrea Lobo, a Rowan professor and computer scientist who specializes in building software systems. The grant includes funding to support five student researchers. 

Better reporting will also improve therapies for clients with severe, challenging behaviors, said Simmons.  

“If accurate data are not being collected, that’s directly impacting patient care,” Simmons said. 

As a parent of a 15-year-old with autism, Lobo said she was eager to join the project. 

“The possibilities are so exciting,” Lobo said. “The potential for impact is so large, on a problem that is so gigantic … and that costs so much money. We are thrilled that the New Jersey Department of Health has recognized the potential of this.” 

The team is working with a community provider, Circle Haven, Inc., to design and test the first prototype. The nonprofit is working on plans to develop a residential community in New Jersey.  

Laurie Romanowich, Circle Haven’s board president, said the nonprofit appreciates the researchers’ efforts and looks forward to “the best design possible” to support its employees and clients. 

“In this time of upheaval and fear,” Romanowich said, “it is especially heartwarming to know the most vulnerable among us are not forgotten.”