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Pragmatic Adaptations Of Telehealth-delivered Caregiver Coaching For Children With Autism In The Context Of COVID-19: Perspectives From The United States And South Africa

Lauren Franz, Jill Howard, Marisa Viljoen, Linmarie Sikich, Tara Chandrasekhar, Scott H Kollins, Lawrence Lee, Minkateko Ndlovu, Maura Sabatos-DeVito, Noleen Seris, Nokuthula Shabalala, Marina Spanos, Petrus J de Vries, Geraldine Dawson

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When COVID-19 disrupted autism spectrum disorder research globally, many clinical trials of behavioral interventions pivoted to telehealth. Telehealth has the potential to increase geographic reach and improve racial/ethnic diversity in research. This matters because most autism spectrum disorder intervention studies have primarily included White, upper-middle-income families from North America and Europe. Participant homogeneity limits our ability to identify what types of intervention works in which context for which populations. Importantly, telehealth needs to “fit” the local context, and in particular, include strategies that factor in the “digital divide.” This short report details contextual considerations and pre-implementation pragmatic adaptations in two autism spectrum disorder clinical trials that include Early Start Denver Model–informed caregiver coaching in the United States and South Africa. By comparing and contrasting how implementation context informed the telehealth pivot in these two clinical trials in different hemispheres, we highlight equity considerations for adaption. The pandemic is an opportunity to understand how remote intervention can “fit” diverse contexts, while providing valid scientific results. It is however important that adaptations be documented and feasibility of the adapted approach be tracked. COVID-19-related telehealth adaptations of behavioral interventions could facilitate the development of new strategies with wider global impact. Lay abstract COVID-19 caused many autism spectrum disorder caregiver-coaching studies to move to telehealth. Telehealth can increase the diversity of people who take part in research. This matters because most autism spectrum disorder studies have included people who have resources, are White, and live in North America and Europe. When study participants are similar, it is hard to understand which interventions can help different types of people who live in different parts of the world. While telehealth may allow more people to take part in research, it needs to “fit” the local context and consider the “digital divide” because many people around the world have no access to computers and the Internet. This short report describes changes to two research studies that include caregiver coaching based on the Early Start Denver Model in the United States and South Africa. We describe how the local context, including technology and Internet access, guided the telehealth approach. By doing so, we highlight ways to make telehealth available to more people around the world. The pandemic can help us understand how telehealth can “fit” diverse places and support high-quality research. It is important that study changes are tracked and we assess how well the changes work. COVID-19 telehealth changes to caregiver coaching can result in new ways to reach more people around the world.