SRU physician assistant students providing sensory intervention for children with autism


Student and professor assembling a sensory kit

Faculty and students from Slippery Rock University’s physician assistant studies program are organizing an intervention project that will place sensory deprivation kits in local health care clinics for use by children with autism spectrum disorder.

Jan. 31, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — To children on the autism spectrum, a visit to the hospital or a doctor's office can be overwhelming. That's why faculty and students from Slippery Rock University's physician assistant program are equipping health care providers in Butler County with tools to make to make patients' experiences more calming.

Funded by an SRU Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities Grant, a group at SRU is gathering items for 12 kits intended to provide sensory intervention to decrease anxiety for children with autism spectrum disorders who visit places such as emergency rooms and pediatric and family practice clinics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in every 44 children has an autism spectrum disorder, which refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

"Our students were inspired to do this because they will be going on clinical rotations this summer and they want to make children with autism feel more comfortable and take away the stress from a medical visit," said Heather Fritz, assistant professor in the physician assistant program. "As patients, (the children) have to wear gowns, and they are getting a physical exam and asked a bunch of questions, there are different smells and sounds, and it can create a lot of anxiety for them."



The inspiration came from Jennifer Salamon, director of communications and outreach at the Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, who last summer spoke to SRU PA program students in a Clinical History and Physical Diagnosis class about the "good and not-so-great experiences in different medical environments" and suggested different tools that could be used to reduce the stress of children with ASD.

"I emphasized how the smallest gestures by a medical professional can have a huge impact," Salamon said. "These are high stress situations for families and people living with autism to start with, so a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. Medical appointments often have a few unknown components, making them very stressful situations for those living with autism. Having a small toy, fidget or sensory tool at the office can help patients stay calm in what can be a high anxiety situation."

"When she brought up the idea, it really hit me and I decided I really wanted to create some sort of kit that we can give to (local health care providers)," said Brandon Hoxworth, a graduate student in the PA program from Akron, Ohio. "Helping an underserved population is important to me. I think this will be impactful because going to the doctor is not fun for any of us and it's certainly not fun for someone who may be having sensory issues."

Based on recommendations from the ACP, Fritz and Hoxworth determined what tools should go into a kit and wrote a grant proposal to the University's Grants Office to cover the costs. Items will include a weighted blanket, noise-canceling headphones, stress balls, pop bubble toys and other manipulative items with textures that are soothing, such as sand, silk or beads. The items will be placed into plastic storage bins and delivered to 12 locations in Butler County later this year. The cost of each kit is approximately $100 and they will be funded completely through the SRU grant.

Heather Fritz


"I love that these students, even if they do not have a direct connection to someone with autism, think this is a worthwhile project," Salamon said. "The prevalence of autism has been, and continues to be, on the rise. Inevitably, they will encounter patients with autism. Not only are they educating themselves, but they will educate everyone who works at these clinics, and anyone who will work in these clinics. It's a very positive snowball effect."

According to Fritz, the kits will be assembled and placed at locations in time for SRU students to see them in use during the clinical rotations in summer 2022. The students will then collect feedback about the kits' effectiveness which could lead to research or a future project with additional kits or kits with different items that could be placed with other health care providers.

"As a provider, I certainly hope that if I see an autistic patient or someone who has sensory problems that something like this will calm them down so that I'm able to give them the best care possible," Hoxworth said. "It's exciting to be able to be a part of something like this and just see the impact that will have."

More information about ASD is available on the ACP website. More information about SRU's PA program is available on the University's website.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854  |