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$2.6 Million Research Grant to Further Study of Autism

Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - Campus News - Contact Theresa Green, (405) 833-9824
 Bonnie McBride, Ph.D., talks about a pilot classroom intervention for preschoolers with autism. She's joined by B.J. and Taylor Lowell and their 5-year-old son Remy, who was in a toddler program for children with autism.

A new $2.6 million grant will further research by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center focused on how to achieve the best outcomes for children with autism .
The National Center for Special Education Research, a division of the Institute for Education Sciences, awarded the grant to Bonnie McBride, Ph.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the OU College of Medicine, to study a classroom-based treatment intervention.
"The prevalence of autism is increasing," McBride said. "There is consensus that early intervention is critical. Children who receive specialized services early have better outcomes."
McBride and colleagues, including researchers at the University of Washington, will evaluate the effectiveness of a specific model in preschoolers with autism. The study will involve 60 children in 12 public school classrooms in the Oklahoma City area, as well as in the Seattle area. Results in those children will be compared with 60 children in standard preschool care.
The four-year project will look at whether 3- and 4-year-olds with autism participating in the project show improvement in cognitive functioning, language, social relatedness and adaptive behavior.
The project model blends practices from the fields of applied behavior analysis, early childhood education and early childhood special education.
Applied behavior analysis is intensive and is not one-size-fits-all. It is based on the concept that people are more likely to repeat behaviors that are rewarded than behaviors that are not recognized or are ignored. A therapist spends up to 40 hours per week working one-to-one with a child, tailoring the program to each child's individual needs. Goals often relate to academic development, communication skills, social skills and overall interaction with the environment.
Studies have shown applied behavior analysis to be effective, but this intensive method is difficult to deliver because of the need for a lot of one-to-one intervention with a certified provider each week. Because of that, experts have recognized the need for a more cost-effective program that could be offered in a classroom setting.
Titled, the Project DATA model, it provides about 20 hours of school-based services and five hours a week of additional intervention provided by families at home with support from teaching staff.
Although Project DATA uses applied behavior analysis techniques, McBride said it arranges them in a way that makes them more practical in a school or classroom setting.
"We will teach children skills and behaviors that will enable them to interact successfully in the same settings with other children their age," McBride said.
Programs that allow children with autism to learn in classrooms settings and provide additional support for parents are essential, said Oklahoma City mother Taylor Lowell, whose 5-year-old son Remy has autism. Remy was in a Project DATA program for toddlers, which she said helped him with emotional and behavior issues.
"Social skills are a big issue with kids with autism," said Lowell. "He's come leaps and bounds. He's able to make friends."
Remy made exceptional progress in the program, McBride said. "He was nonverbal when he started the program and is now conversational and above average in his cognitive and academic abilities."
McBride and colleagues also are studying the model in toddlers through another project with the University of Washington.
"Our goal is to follow children entering intervention at different periods of time in the early childhood years and really investigate how child characteristics may interact with aspects of the intervention and the length of time needed in intervention," McBride said.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication. Because different people with autism can have very different symptoms, health care providers think of autism as a "spectrum" disorder, a group of disorders with similar features. It impacts one in 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms usually start before age 3 and can cause delays or problems in many different skills that develop from infancy to adulthood.

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