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UC research identifies digital solutions for NZ Autism support

13 September 2023

A University of Canterbury-led research team is determined to create more accessible pipelines of support for autistic Kiwi kids and their caregivers.


University of Canterbury Professor Laurie McLay is leading a programme of research into digitally delivered, autism-specific support for children on the autism spectrum and their families.


One in 54 children in Aotearoa New Zealand are autistic, and countless more are on an ever-increasing waitlist for diagnosis.

Professor Laurie McLay, a Senior Research Fellow at the Child Well-being Research Institute, Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) says support services for autistic children and their whānau are sparce domestically, and they’re almost non-existent for those waiting for diagnosis, leaving parents and caregivers with few places to turn.

She is leading an Aotearoa New Zealand research team that’s committed to relieving this pressure, after identifying an area few have researched before – digitally delivered, autism-specific support.

Through a series of research projects, Professor McLay and her team have developed a suite of accessible, evidence-informed digital (online) educational resources focused on the wellbeing of autistic children and their caregivers.

“Timely access to early support that optimises children’s development and their caregivers’ mental health is critical,” Professor McLay says.

The resources would be available to tamariki and their whānau regardless of a formal diagnosis of autism.

Professor McLay’s cross-institutional research team includes academics from UC, Victoria, Auckland and Massey Universities. The objective of their research is to evaluate the accessibility and effectiveness, in addition to social and cultural acceptability, of these digital resources.

The research programme was formed around two projects. The first, now complete, was funded by Lottery Health Research and focused on health promoting behaviours including sleeping, toileting and eating difficulties. The second, current study was funded by CureKids and the National Science Challenge’s Better Start programme and focuses on caregiver mental health and children’s communication and learning. Data analysis for both studies is ongoing.

Each project included different methods of delivery, including web-based educational support and online group coaching, co-facilitated by members of the research team and caregivers of autistic children. 

A parent participant shared the “immense value” the programmes were, both for them, and their child.

“The skills I learnt in these programmes helped me to connect with my son in his own space, as well as help further his communication and interactions with me and others. I learnt valuable lessons that helped me not only be a better parent but also helped me integrate that experience into my life.”

The engagement and learning tools have been received favourably by those involved, particularly for the convenience – delivery methods are cost effective and ensure they don’t have to pre-arrange childcare or time off work.

“While we don’t believe digital programmes are a standalone solution, they offer an accessible option, enabling parents choice in how they access and engage with services,” Professor McLay explains.

“Reducing our reliance on more resource intensive, one-to-one models of support can go some way to addressing the ever-increasing need for autism services and support.”

SDG 3 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 - Good health and wellbeing.

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