University of South Dakota Center for Disabilities (SD UCEDD/LEND) Goes Virtual

June 22, 2020

Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the need to practice physical distancing, the University of South Dakota Center for Disabilities (SD UCEDD/LEND) quickly adapted and innovated to stay connected. After an unexpected extended spring break caused by the rapidly spreading coronavirus, classes at the University of South Dakota were moved online beginning March 16, 2020. This meant that didactic and clinical activities of the SD LEND Program would also need to shift gears. From March through May, SD LEND trainees met virtually via Zoom video conferencing for presentations and discussions on Native American Culture, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, Developmental Trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and Leadership. Utilizing an online platform enabled SD LEND trainees to maintain engagement, stay connected, and complete all of their LEND requirements.

In addition to courses and clinical rotations, SD LEND trainees found innovative ways to stay connected and support families throughout South Dakota. The USD Center for Disabilities typically hosts a monthly in-person support group for parents who have children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). During the support group, children and their siblings are invited to play and interact with their peers and group leaders (SD LEND trainees) while their parents attend the meeting. In addition, teens and young adults with autism are encouraged to socialize and play board and card games led by the LEND trainees. Due to COVID-19, these in-person events were no longer an option.

In order to continue supporting families during COVID-19, the parent support group, kids activities, and teen and young adult "hangouts" were transitioned online. SD LEND trainees took leadership roles in planning and facilitating fun and interactive meetings with the children, teens, and young adults to foster social interaction and skill development during this time of isolation. Activities for the children's sessions included Bingo, Show and Tell, Rainbow Run, and Simon Says. The teen/adult activities included Scattergories, Rainbow Run, and Bingo. These interactive hangout sessions encourage participants to interact with the group leaders and fellow participants. We are excited to continue these online activities indefinitely and, although we have targeted South Dakota and surrounding areas, we have also had individuals from California, Texas, and Massachusetts join in as well.

Having the opportunity to lead and spend time with such amazing children and teens/adults, especially during such a trying time, has been so wonderful. I have loved the challenge of planning virtual activities that foster connection and interaction while also being a fun hour for everyone. LEND has opened so many doors for me and, while I never expected this to be one of them, I cannot thank my supporters within both the LEND program and at the Center for Disabilities enough for allowing me to expand my skill set and connect with outstanding individuals and families. -Erin Buse, B.S., Occupational Therapy LEND trainee.

The virtual support groups have provided a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience interacting with individuals with ASD and their families. It is extremely rewarding to see the participants having fun and interacting with others in a virtual context. These sessions have clearly demonstrated how we can adapt to unprecedented situations in order remain inclusive for all. -Shelby Beckman, B.S., Occupational Therapy LEND trainee.

It's been fun connecting with parents and individuals with ASD over Zoom. It gives them a chance to be social and receive support while remaining socially distanced. We've been able to reach people who live in the rural areas of our state who hadn't been able to attend in-person events in the past due to the distance from our office. It's wonderful that technology can connect us and eliminate distance as a barrier to participation. -Letty Thelen, Executive Assistant and Facilitator of the Autism Support Group at the USD Center for Disabilities.

Our bittersweet year together ended with the Annual SD LEND Research and Awards Symposium where trainees presented their research projects and were recognized for their accomplishments. The event was held via Zoom rather than our typical in-person celebration, but was special, nonetheless. Facemasks embroidered with "SD LEND" were sent to trainees as a memento to commemorate our year together. We are very proud of our future healthcare leaders! See a video of our trainees sharing their highlights from their year.