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Autism Alliance of Michigan: Helping families navigate a pandemic

At a glance

We helped Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) reduce manual work for its staff and quickly connect families to the resources they need. The data entry form, database, and dashboards that make up its new directory system will help AAoM form a more robust network of services and providers and expand access to services for people with autism throughout the state.

What we did

  • Data management system design
  • Data automation
  • Database creation
  • Data visualization
  • Dashboard design and development
  • AWS cloud adoption with Amazon Lightsail
  • Co-funded work with State of Michigan

Change of course

Never in our lifetimes have we needed more help course-correcting than we did in the early days of the pandemic. Employees needed help adjusting to fully remote work. Parents needed help maneuvering caregiving and classes. People everywhere needed help because so much about everyday life suddenly looked so different.

For people with autism and their caregivers—many of whom are also employees and parents—school closures and stay-at-home orders disrupted critical systems of care, support, and respite. They needed help navigating—and fast.

Colleen Allen knew this. The CEO of Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) had watched the influx of calls to her team of Navigators with concern. The Navigator team connects people with autism around Michigan to nearby services—everything from clinical to legal—that help them lead lives that meet their greatest potential. Navigators are assisted by AAoM’s provider directory management system, which they use to collect and store information from service providers and present that information to AAoM families, either over the phone or through an online directory.

“I was really concerned about our families living with a child or an adult with autism,” says Allen. “How would they cope with the significant disruption in their services? With the disruption to special education programming in schools? And parents at home trying to work?”

Finding remote services

It was a timely opportunity for the Navigator team to step up and help. It’s also where things became complicated. The 14-person team of Navigators serves 2,000 families per year and was also responsible for updating and adding service information from AAoM’s 1,500 provider partners to the directory. They’d always done so manually and with mainly free tools, and now hundreds of providers were launching new telehealth services, online resources, and other remote connections.

To help AAoM continue serving families effectively during the pandemic, Slalom Detroit stepped in. In a project co-funded with the State of Michigan, we donated our services to AAoM for a total system overhaul.

We assembled a team of technologists to assess AAoM’s existing directory. The conclusion: AAoM needed a more secure, robust, and scalable solution to handle demand. So, we built a data entry form, database, and dashboards that together became the new provider directory management system. The structured database helps Navigators streamline data collection and management, while the dashboards allow both Navigators and AAoM families to more easily locate and save provider information. Families can still connect directly with Navigators, who are now equipped with an internal dashboard to assist in finding the right services.

Built for maximum reach

The new system runs on a custom Java application and SQL database hosted on AWS. Slalom used the Amazon Lightsail cloud platform to get AAoM started on AWS quickly and cost-effectively. “It’s not complex, it’s not overly expensive, and it fit really well with the way in which AAoM would like to purchase services,” Slalom Solution Owner Dave Zabihaylo says of Lightsail.

From a security standpoint, AWS has also given AAoM more confidence about managing the sensitive data it needs to collect for reporting purposes. This includes information about the number of families served and the nature of the cases that Navigators handle—information that AAoM reports to the State of Michigan, which funds a significant portion of the Navigator program.

Families can access the directory through a responsive website that has the familiar look and feel of the original WordPress site. Specific services are easier to find, with multiple search, sort, and filter options that enable families and Navigators alike to find and save what they need. Navigators no longer have to copy and paste search results into emails to families; they can simply download a report and send it over. To ensure a positive service experience, Navigators can also securely save feedback from families about their experiences with providers for future reference.

Through the new data entry form, providers are empowered to build their own profiles and list the services they offer, methods of delivery, and their locations. And, if AAoM needs to communicate with providers or families, it can now securely send messages at whatever scale necessary.

I think about how I would use it as a parent, how I would have benefited from having this 15 years ago when we were wondering what was going on with my daughter, and the access this is going to provide families.

The way to the moon

The project held special meaning for one member of Slalom’s team: Bill Ernzen. Ernzen is a managing director at Slalom Detroit, a board member of six years at AAoM, and a parent of a child with autism.

“I think about how I would use it as a parent, how I would have benefited from having this 15 years ago when we were wondering what was going on with my daughter, and the access this is going to provide families,” says Ernzen. “It’s so needed, and I just feel so grateful that we at Slalom were able to contribute to making that happen.”

Allen estimates that approximately 8,000 families have made use of AAoM’s directory. But she adds that there are well over 100,000 individuals with autism in the state. Reaching every one of them in need is what Allen calls AAoM’s “big moonshot.” She believes the new system will help the team get there.

Says Allen, “It will allow us to launch significant outreach through marketing and through trainings and community awareness all over the state, and know that we can be responsive.”

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