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Parent Skills Training in the wake of Hurricane Haiyan

Autism Speaks’ Global Autism Public Health team takes WHO Parent Skills Training to hurricane-devastated region of the Philippines

By Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks assistant director of education research and a member of the 
Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health (GAPH) team.

I’m so pleased to report back from our recent trip to the Philippines, where we held our second Master Training Workshop in the World Health Organization’s Parent Skills Training program. WHO and Autism Speaks collaborated to develop this program to disseminate proven skills and strategies for working with children who have developmental disorders such as autism. The program trains non-specialists to lead group classes and make home visits in communities where there are too few, if any, specialists.

As readers of this column may recall, we held our first Master Training Workshop in China last October – learning much in the process. We were already busy planning our second workshop with our long-time partners the Autism Hearts Foundation and Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubial, assistant secretary to the Philippines Department of Health. Focusing on an area of particularly great need, our team decided to hold the master training in Tacloban City, in the Hurricane Haiyan-affected region of Leyte.




As part of this workshop, we trained three master trainers – a developmental pediatrician, a special education teacher and a physical therapist.

Other participants included non-specialist facilitators, all of whom had experience working with children affected by developmental disorders such as autism. Our three master trainers will mentor these and additional facilitators as they run Parent Skills Training programs in their communities.

Together with Ya-Chih (Jilly) Chang, of California State University, Los Angeles, I helped teach the participants the strategies outlined in the WHO Parent Skills Training manual – which is still undergoing development and refinement. We provided hands-on practice using the strategies to foster joint attention and shared engagement through play with children.

With our help, the master trainers also practiced coaching facilitators on how to use the strategies and run training groups with parents, grandparents and other caregivers.

We continue to work with the WHO in improving and adapting the training manual as we continue to learn so much from each training workshop we complete.

In Tacloban, for example, we shared the challenges of working in a low-resource community that’s still rebuilding after a natural disaster. As you can imagine, accessing any kind of professional health service continues to be a struggle here. At the same time, we encountered a community ready to rise to such challenges. Many wonderful families arrived to volunteer as “subjects” for our trainee practice sessions. Some drove from three hours away. We continued to receive more and more phone calls and offers of help as word spread through the community that we were here to conduct the training.

A particularly important area of learning for us involves recognizing and adapting to cultural expectations and differences. Parenting styles, in particular, can be quite different from one country or world region to the next. In the Philippines – as in much of Asia – for example, the idea of parents playing with children – for play’s sake alone – is not the norm. Rather, parent-child interactions tend to revolve around academic instruction and learning.

As a result, we learned that we need to emphasize the benefits of playing with children as a means of teaching new skills. We continue to incorporate lessons such as these into the WHO training manual we are pilot testing. Each workshop is another important step in improving and ensuring the effectiveness of the WHO Parent Skills Training program before we introduce it globally.

After the success of our workshop in Tacloban, the Philippines Department of Health expressed interest in expanding the program to additional areas of the country. The Department of Health staffers who participated in the training are particularly keen to bring it to their home regions.

Other countries that have expressed interest in hosting a pilot program include Russia, Ethiopia, South Korea and several Latin American nations – in addition to several communities in the United States and Canada.

In closing, we want to thank the global Autism Speaks community for supporting this life-transforming work. We look forward to reporting again on our progress.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.