UHCL behavior analyst uses telehealth for global autism outreach

August 20, 2018 | Katherine Adams

telehealth
Assisting Tsami (second from right) in her efforts to support non-English-speaking parents of children with autism are interpreters Naomi Alphonso, Maria Quadri, and Irina Shutts, who interpret for Hindi, Urdu, and Russian-speaking clients, respectively. 

Research Associate Loukia Tsami spends her workday providing telehealth services to families of children with autism in Texas as part of a grant-funded project at the University of Houston Clear Lake’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. But during the evenings and on weekends, she could be ‘virtually’ anywhere –in up to 14 countries– as part of her efforts to bring critical services to families around the world.

“This work is my passion, it’s my obsession,” said Tsami, a native-born Greek who has a master’s in psychology and is a licensed and board-certified behavior analyst. “Some people have nothing. They feel totally on their own. But if they have access to the internet and a computer or smart phone with a camera, I can help.” Many countries only have one or perhaps not a single board certified behavior analyst in the entire country. “We began in Turkey and Greece, and moved to Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Mexico, Costa Rica, China, Ghana, Liberia, Cameroon – and I had to find interpreters,” said Tsami.

Tsami observes parents with their children by establishing a two-way interactive video connection between her computer and the parents’ device, coaching them to interact with their children in ways that will help her understand why the children are engaging in problem behavior, such as aggression, self-injury, and property destruction. She then coaches the parents to implement behavioral treatments that focus on reducing the behavior and increasing language skills. Tsami overcomes language barriers by recruiting interpreters to communicate with the parent during the appointments.

“I can say with confidence that no one in the entire world is doing what Loukia is doing, on this scale,” said Dorothea Lerman, Professor of Psychology and Director of CADD. “She is breaking barriers. And our research is showing that this therapy is effective with families from a variety of cultures, regardless of whether we need to use interpreters.”

Tsami created a Facebook page entitled, “Telehealth ABA World Project,” to reach families with children with autism and offer free behavior analysis services online, regardless of location, language, race, religion or socioeconomic status. Families around the world often rely on ineffective treatments for problem behavior, such as medication and harsh discipline. “I am trying to offer parents other tools besides punishment and pills, because those things don’t help. People do not realize their kids are still teachable,” said Tsami, who use evidence-based techniques that faculty are teaching and refining at UHCL.

In addition to language and cultural barriers, Tsami has to overcome numerous other challenges as she moves forward with her clients.  For example, in some countries, families do not have access to reliable internet service or transportation to facilities that have the equipment needed for the appointments. “In Africa, we are holding fundraisers to pay for the internet, equipment, generators, and gasoline to ensure that families can get help,” Tsami explained.  

For particularly difficult cases, Tsami said she consults with Lerman. “Having a boss like Dr. Lerman, who can see the possibility, and the end result, and has faith in me, is wonderful,” she said. “This work means everything to me.”

Learn more about the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at www.uhcl.edu/autism-center.