Investigator receives $500,000 grant to support health and wellness program for children on the Autism Spectrum

photo of Leah Ketcheson
Leah Ketcheson

Research indicates that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience significant health disparities — including high rates of obesity and inactivity — which are often caused by the limited availability of health and nutrition programs, particularly in low-income communities. The Physical Literacy and Nutrition Education (PLANE) program — a new initiative of the Wayne State University College of Education’s Center for Health and Community Impact — seeks to address this issue. 

Leah Ketcheson, Ph.D., assistant professor and coordinator of the health and physical education teaching program, received a $500,000 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund’s Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles Grant Program to support the PLANE program, a two-year initiative aimed at promoting positive trajectories of health and well-being for children with ASD and their families. This comprehensive, year-round program promotes health equity and addresses accessibility issues through physical activity, nutrition, social services, advocacy and social network education for children with ASD and their families.

“An integral aspect of PLANE is that it seeks to include entire families,” said Ketcheson. “We anticipate that the delivery of a family-wide intervention with tailored, individualized instruction will maximize the opportunity for the acquisition of knowledge and behavior change. Including parents and siblings allows families to progress through learning modules and gain knowledge about strategies for improving their collective health and nutrition together.”

Afterschool programming — which will be available to participants ages 2 through 18 — will focus on teaching families about age-appropriate physical activities, healthy eating habits and tools, and community and other resources. To facilitate family-based exercise outside of PLANE, parents will participate in their own physical activities, getting training and technology support to perform activities with their children at home. To address many of the unique feeding disorders experienced by children with autism, board-certified behavioral analysts with extensive experience in the operationalization of behavioral interventions used to promote healthy eating behaviors will deliver nutrition education lessons. The PLANE curriculum will also support parents by improving their knowledge of disability/autism legislation and advocacy skills, promoting the awareness of rights and involvement in an inclusive K-12 education system, increasing awareness of and engagement with social services available for their children, and encouraging social support networks for parents of children with autism.

“Our hope is that this program will result in a number of positive outcomes for children with ASD and their families,” said Ketcheson. “Our goals include increasing activity levels, decreasing obesity rates, improving aquatic skills and water safety behaviors, improving decision-making skills related to healthy food choices, and building parents’ confidence in their ability to obtain support when needed and to advocate for their children as it relates to legislative, special education and social services processes.”

Prior to PLANE’s launch, team members assembled and disseminated equipment bags containing fitness and nutrition supplies — including exercise bands, basketballs, soccer balls, juicers, measuring cups, and USDA plates — families needed to participate in virtual programming. Coaches meet with families in weekly breakout groups for synchronous physical activity and nutrition education programming. Families also receive materials such as clickable PDF files and printed worksheets to engage with content asynchronously. To engage with the entire family, the program includes a goal-setting component during which primary caregivers consult with their families about their participation goals for the upcoming week.

“We believe that by encouraging goal setting, we will stimulate further engagement with PLANE virtual content,” said Ketcheson. “The opportunity to monitor their progress on goals simultaneously serves as a way to evaluate the usefulness of our lessons.”

Every Friday, families pick up fresh ingredients to make healthy snacks for the coming week. While grocery pick-ups are contactless experiences, they have also become opportunities to interact with participants at a distance. 

The PLANE program will also enhance the academic experience of students majoring in health and physical education teaching. Students will participate in more than 200 hours of direct, individualized instruction to children with ASD and their families, which will prepare them to meet the diversity of needs within the public school sector and allow them to add a special education teaching endorsement to their initial teaching certification.

“PLANE not only seeks to improve the health and well-being of children with ASD and their families, but it also seeks to ensure our teacher candidates are prepared to address the special needs of these children and their families,” said Ketcheson. “Our goal is to make sure all students and their families have access to the information and resources they need to achieve their academic goals and maintain their health. PLANE provides children who are often overlooked with the opportunity to soar.”

The mission of the Center for Health and Community Impact is to improve community health and vitality through leadership and advancement of research, programs and policies for healthy living. For more information, visit education.wayne.edu/health-community-impact.

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