New digital health software, a saviour for child mental health

23 Feb 2022

Michael, an educator from Canberra, joined the Secret Agent Society (SAS) just six month ago. No – he’s not an actual spy – instead he’s delivering the evidence-based SAS Small Group Program that has changed the lives of over 25,000 families across Australia and internationally.

Delivered by trained SAS Facilitators, in schools, clinics or via telehealth, the program works to diversify and strengthen the social, emotional and problem-solving skills of children usually aged between eight and 12 years. This includes, but is not limited to, children diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. SAS has fun, espionage-themed resources that teach children how to feel happier, calmer and braver, while learning new skills to assist with their team work and friendship goals.

Michael, who runs a service for kids and teens called Amazing Skills, started out with five small groups of kids, but he quickly realised the program’s potential to empower children with identified social and emotional goals. He rapidly recruited colleagues to expand the SAS service. Within 6 months they are now working with 129 children across multiple states and countries using a telehealth model.

“Something that bewilders me in most parent sessions during the program is that parents are just beside themselves with amazing news of their children’s breakthroughs and half the time I’m as surprised as they are. When I first started this SAS work, no-one could have persuaded me that in the space of just a couple of weeks, children could learn how to make friends, or that children could learn how to have five-minute conversations with strangers after just the first two months or so of working on those skills,” said Michael.

While many crucial support services were forced to shut down or restrict accessibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, the small team at Secret Agent Society headquarters, a subsidiary of Autism CRC, managed a rapid transformation of their small group program into a sophisticated digital health system. This ensured the ongoing support of families and child mental health at a time of great uncertainty and into the future.

“Without the digital version, we would not have been able to continue delivering the program at what was possibly the time of greatest need for our kids,“ said Joanne Tisdell, School Principal and Aspect Practice Specialist. Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) has been delivering SAS since 2012 where it is now fully embedded across all nine Aspect schools. Over 100 new children on the autism spectrum join their classroom peers as junior detectives each year.

The digital edition streamlines group sessions, between-session activities, and adult information sharing for both face-to-face or telehealth services. The program consists of animated computer games, child Club Meetings, Parent Group Meetings, Teacher Information Sessions and Teacher Tip Sheets, paired with real-life practice Missions and a handy Skill Tracker system to monitor and reward skill development across both home and school.

Even without the challenges of COVID, the application of the new digital approach means that children and families in remote and rural areas can access the program and support without having to travel long distances. And while SAS was already being used by a small number of providers in Canada, Ireland, United Kingdom, USA, Asia and New Zealand, the digital version will allow SAS Providers to reach more families across the world in the years to come.

This innovative approach to health delivery was driven by the SST’s Chief Operating Officer Kathleen Davey, who recently received the Australian Psychology Society’s inaugural Entrepreneur of the Year Award for this work.

“It is beyond amazing to do and enjoy. We love this. None of us have ever encountered something that has the potential to help kids as much as SAS does,” said Michael.

Find out more about the SAS Small group program

APS Psychology Entrepreneur of the Year Award