By Darian Brenner
Obesity is one of the biggest health concerns for the general population, with 35% of adults and 17% of children meeting the criteria (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2014). Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and developmental disabilities are at an even greater risk for nutritional deficiencies, obesity, and chronic health conditions (Presmanes Hill et al., 2015).
With this information in mind, a study conducted by Lori Klein, a Master of Public Health (MPH) candidate and Vista parent, sought to find out what we can do to help solve this problem among individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and developmental disabilities.
“I wanted to give back to the Vista community, because the school has done so much for my son,” Klein states. “I asked Kirsten Yurich (chief clinical officer) if Vista had any public health needs, and she immediately thought of the well-known difficulty that direct care staff face in balancing an individual’s right to make their own choices while also ensuring health and wellness.”
Through Vista Adult Services, Klein conducted a study on what could help direct care staff to improve nutritional outcomes for individuals with ASD and developmental disabilities. Objectives for the study included developing a set of nutrition education training videos and manuals for direct care staff at Vista’s four residences and ways to develop a better understanding of how to effectively engage adults with autism in meal preparation and cooking activities.
Before putting together the materials, Klein asked participants about their current overall knowledge of food and nutrition. Some 66.7% of participants reported that their overall knowledge was average, while 33.7% reported that they had good knowledge of food and nutrition.
Based on these survey results, Klein expanded the nutrition resource manuals at each residence and organized materials into binders. The manuals now contain detailed and in-depth topics about healthy eating, meal planning, and various recipes. Some personal touches are included in the manual, as there is space for students to add family and staff recipe favorites. Klein also provided a set of 30 PowerPoint demonstrations with voiceover video to each residence to accompany the manuals.
All participants reported benefiting from the nutrition education programs. After completing the programs, Klein administered a post-survey in which participants reported knowledge levels of excellent (33.3%), good (44.4%), and average (22.2%). Strengths of the programs, as seen by the participants, included good use of graphics and visuals, and organization and clarity of materials. Participants suggested improvements on more “hands-on” training and in-person sessions.
Klein believes her research can provide insight into a healthy and nutritional environment.
“The nutrition education program is part of new staff training and can provide a foundation of knowledge that staff can use when supporting adults with autism,” she said. “Everyone deserves to be healthy!”