IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Early Childhood: Preliminary and Long-Term Impacts

The prevalence of children identified as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased steadily in the last 20 years. Early identification and intervention is important, a point that is underscored by the CDC’s campaign Learn the Signs. Act Early. To recognize April’s Autism Awareness Month, NCSER is highlighting two projects supporting the capacity of parents and educators to intervene in children’s early development.

Assisting Early Interventionists in Facilitating Parent Mediation of Learning

Photo of Hannah SchertzPhoto of Kathleen Baggett

Researchers Hannah Schertz (left, Indiana University) and Kathleen Baggett (right, Georgia State University) have developed a framework to improve the social communication skills of toddlers showing signs of ASD with a system that guides early interventionists (EIs) to support parents. The program, Supporting Early Interventionists of Toddlers with Autism to Build Family Capacity (SEITA), aims to help EIs to work with parents as they integrate interventions into natural interactions with their children. EIs learn to guide parents in understanding when their child is engaging in social communication and in implementing learning strategies to enhance these competencies during parent-child interactions. More specifically, EIs guide parents in applying four mediated strategies to promote engagement in learning: focusing, giving meaning, encouraging, and expanding. For example, one strategy they use is to facilitate guided reflection on a just-recorded video of parent-child interactions.

As the researchers test the promise of the intervention, they report that EIs have conducted the intervention with fidelity in both home-based and telehealth contexts. They have found that parents in the study demonstrated clear improvements in their use of at least two mediated learning strategies and have been able to implement intervention practices with fidelity when working with their children. The researchers also track the children’s progress on social reciprocity, joint attention, positive social behavior, and social play, and results will be analyzed when data collection is complete.

Investigating the Long-Term Benefits of an Elementary Intervention

Photo of James P. Donnelly, Marcus L. Thomeer, Christopher Lopata, and Jonathan D. Rodgers
The IAR team (from left to right): James P. Donnelly, Marcus L. Thomeer, Christopher Lopata, and Jonathan D. Rodgers

As children age into elementary grades, their primary site of intervention becomes the school. In 2008, NCSER funded the development of the comprehensive school-based intervention (CSBI) to support the social competencies of children with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD). This multi-prong approach includes interactive computer instruction to teach children to recognize emotions, social skills groups, therapeutic peer group activities to practice social skills, daily behavioral notes, and monthly parent training. A 2013 NCSER-funded randomized controlled trial of CSBI found that students with HFASD who participated in CSBI improved significantly in measures of social cognition, social-communication skills, and ASD symptoms compared to students with HFASD who received typical instruction.

To assess the intervention’s ability to impact long-term student development, Christopher Lopata and his colleagues James Donnelly, Marcus Thomeer, and Jonathan Rodgers (Canisius College) are following up on the initial efficacy trial to study the middle and high school students who participated in CSBI in elementary school. They are measuring student social cognition, social communication skills, ASD symptoms, and academic achievement at the beginning and end of two consecutive school years to examine lasting impacts of the CSBI program. Although data are still being analyzed from this project, it is notable that because data collection occurred as the COVID-19 pandemic caused school shutdowns, the PIs were able to examine the potential effects of stay-at-home restrictions on these students. There have been widespread concerns that disruptions to routines, curtailed social opportunities, and removal of support services associated with shutdowns could have deleterious effects on children with ASD. However, Lopata and colleagues found no significant differences between data collected before stay-at-home restrictions and data collected 4 months after the restrictions on ASD symptoms, adaptive behaviors, or social communication.

NCSER will continue to share the final results of these studies, as well as additional research focused on supporting children with ASD, in the future.

Written by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University, and by Emily Weaver (Emily.Weaver@ed.gov), NCSER program officer who oversees ASD grants.

Film Detective: How an AI-powered Game Aims to Improve Outcomes for Students with ASD

Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to revolutionize the way humans live, even in ways yet unseen, and education is no exception. IES funds research at the cutting edge of technology and education science, and, as Director Mark Schneider has recently pointed out, AI may eventually serve to help educators identify, assess, and support students with disabilities. In 2018, NCSER awarded funding to Dr. Maithilee Kunda of Vanderbilt University to do just that.

Dr. Kunda and her team are developing a new game called Film Detective to improve theory of mind (ToM) reasoning in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ToM reasoning is the ability to infer the mental state of others, allowing us to understand and predict behavior based on our perception of their beliefs, intentions, and desires. The game builds on a technology-based intervention known as Betty’s Brain. Developed with support from a NCER grant, Betty’s Brain is a computer-based instructional program for middle school science that allows students to teach a computer agent to understand certain concepts. By teaching the agent, students grew their own knowledge and understanding. Dr. Kunda and her team are building on this software by adapting the learning-by-teaching model to improve ToM reasoning in neurodiverse students. (For more on Dr. Kunda’s perspective on the importance of neurodiversity, see this blog.)

The Film Detective game takes students through an interactive storyline in which they must help a scientist from the year 3021 “decode” the way people in today’s world behave in a series of films. The stakes are high as students help a scientist unlock a time machine by retrieving codes hidden in films by an evil scientist—aptly named Von Klepto—who has stolen items from the Museum of Human History. By teaching the computer agent—the player’s robot sidekick (named T.O.M.)—how to identify modern behaviors, the student develops their own ToM reasoning. The Film Detective storyline is a product of the creative talents of several Vanderbilt creative writing students, and the game mechanics were designed with insights of college students with ASD themselves. With the help of post-doctoral student and project lead, Roxanne Rashedi, the project team has used participatory design and qualitative methods to better tailor the game to the community for which it is intended. By working closely with students with ASD and their families, the project team was able to refine the original Betty’s Brain structure with new reward structures and storylines that balance the challenge of the game with the frustration that students can feel playing the game.

Screen shot of the Film Detective’s theatre and time machine room
Film Detective’s Theatre and Time Machine Room (illustration by Kayla Stark)

Every part of the project draws on the diverse expertise of the team, and the inclusion of a variety of perspectives has been crucial to informing the project’s development. The team includes experts from Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering and the Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD), with Dr. Kunda and students in computer science and psychology providing insights in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. The joining of expertise in artificial intelligence, clinical psychology, and educational psychology has allowed the team to merge theoretical perspectives on ToM development with conceptions of knowledge representation and modeling in computational systems. This approach offers the team a unique framework for understanding the development of social reasoning skills in students with ASD. Beyond the theoretical, the team has also leveraged artificial intelligence to evaluate how students progress through the game, using advanced data mining techniques and eye-tracking-enabled user studies to better understand how students with ASD can develop greater ToM reasoning through learning-by-teaching.

Film Detective’s hallway to concessions
Film Detective’s Hallway to Concessions (illustration by Kayla Stark)

The work that has gone into Film Detective exemplifies the ways that novel research that combines technological advancement and diverse perspectives can lead to important innovations in the education sciences. While Film Detective is still under development (it is currently being user tested, and readers are encouraged to sign up to take part here), IES is eager to see what will come out of this exciting collaboration.

Dr. Maithilee Kunda is the director of the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence and Visual Analogical Systems and a faculty investigator for the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University. This blog was written and edited by Bennett Lunn, Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

Perspective Matters: How Diversity of Background, Expertise, and Cognition Can Lead to Good Science

IES funds cutting-edge researchers who often bring multiple disciplines together. Dr. Maithilee Kunda (Vanderbilt University) is one such researcher who stands at the juncture of multiple fields, using artificial intelligence (AI) to address questions related to cognition and autism spectrum disorder. Recently, Dr. Kunda received an award from the National Center for Special Education Research to develop an educational game that leverages AI to help students with autism spectrum disorder better infer and understand the beliefs, desires, and emotions of others. As a computer scientist and woman of color performing education research, Dr. Kunda exemplifies the value that diverse backgrounds, experiences, and disciplines bring to the field.

Bennett Lunn, a Truman-Albright Fellow at IES, asked Dr. Kunda about her work and background. Her responses are below.

As a woman of color, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

Photo of Dr. Maithilee Kunda

In college, I was a math major on the theory track, which meant that my math classes were really hard! I had been what one might call a “quick study” in high school, so it was a new experience for me to be floating around the bottom quartile of each class. The classes were mostly men, but it happened that there was a woman of color in our cohort—an international student from Colombia—and she was flat-out brilliant. She would ask the professor a question that no one else even understood, but the professor’s eyes would light up, and the two of them would start having some animated and incomprehensible discussion about whatever “mathy” thing it was. That student’s presence bestowed upon me a valuable gift: the ability to assume, without even thinking twice, that women of color quite naturally belong in math and science, even at the top of the heap! I don’t even remember her name, but I wish I could shake her hand. She was a role model for me and for every other student in those classes just by being who she was and doing what she did.

I have been extremely lucky to have seen diverse scientists and academics frequently throughout my career. My very first computer science teacher in high school was a woman. At a high school science camp, my engineering professor was a man who walked with two forearm crutches. Several of my college professors in math, chemistry, and robotics were women. My favorite teaching assistant in a robotics class was a Black man. In graduate school, I remember professors and senior students who were women, LGBTQ people, and people of color. Unfortunately, I know that the vast majority of students do not have access to such a wealth of diverse role models. It is heartening, though, that even a single role model—just by showing up—has so much power to positively shape the perceptions of everyone who sees them in their rightful place, be it in STEM, academia, or whatever context they inhabit.

What got you interested in a career in education science?

I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy growing up, and in high school, I was wrestling with why I liked these genres so much. I came up with a pet theory about fiction writing. All works of fiction are like extended thought experiments; the author sets up some initial conditions—characters, setting, etc.—and they run the experiment via writing about it. In general fiction, the experiments mostly involve variables at the people scale. In sci-fi and fantasy, on the other hand, authors are trying to run experiments at civilization or planetary scales, and that’s why they have to create whole new worlds to write about. I realized that was why I loved those genres so much: they allowed me to think about planetary-scale experiments! 

This “what if” mindset has continued to weave itself throughout my scholarship and career.

How did it ever become possible for humans to imagine things that don’t exist? Why do some people think differently from others, and how can we redesign the workings of our societies to make sure that everyone is supported, enriched, and empowered to contribute to their fullest potential? These kinds of questions fuel my scientific passions and have led me to pursue a variety of research directions on visual thinking, autism, AI, and education.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of neurodiversity and inclusion in education?

Early in graduate school, and long before I heard the term neurodiversity, the first big paper I wrote was a re-analysis of several research studies on cognition in autism. This research taught me there can be significant individual variation in how people think. Even if 99 other people with similar demographic characteristics happen to solve a problem one particular way, that does not mean that the hundredth person from the same group is also going to solve the problem that way.

I realized much later that this research fits very well into the idea of neurodiversity, which essentially observes that atypical patterns of thinking should be viewed more as differences than as being inherently wrong or inadequate. Like any individual characteristics you have, the way you think brings with it a particular set of strengths and weaknesses, and different kinds of thinking come with different strengths and weaknesses.

Much of my team’s current research is a continuation of this theme. For example, in one project, we are developing new methods for assessing spatial skills that dig down into the processes people use to solve problems. This view of individual differences is probably one that teachers know intuitively from working one-on-one with students. One of the challenges for today’s education research is to continue to bring this kind of intuitive expertise into our research studies to describe individual differences more systematically across diverse learner populations.

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

For the past 3 years, I have been leading an IES project to create a new educational game called Film Detective to help students with autism spectrum disorder improve their theory of mind (ability to take another’s perspective) and social reasoning skills. This was my first experience doing research on an interactive application of this kind. I was a newcomer to the idea of participatory design, which basically means that instead of just designing for some particular group of users, you bring their voices in as active contributors early in the design process. Our amazing postdoc Dr. Roxanne Rashedi put together a series of early studies using participatory methods, so we had the opportunity to hear directly from middle schoolers on the spectrum, their parents, and their teachers about what they needed and wanted to see in this kind of technology.

In one of these studies, we had students try out a similar education game and then give us feedback. One young man, about 11 or 12 years old, got frustrated in the middle of the session and had a bit of a meltdown. After he calmed down, we asked him about the game and what he would like to see taught in similar games. He told us that he would really like some help in learning how to handle his frustration better so that he could avoid having those kinds of meltdowns. Impressed by his self-awareness and courage in talking to us about his personal challenges, we ended up designing a whole new area in our game called the Relaxatron arcade. This is where students can play mini-games that help them learn about strategies for self-regulation, like deep breathing or meditation. This whole experience reinforced for me the mindset of participatory design: we are all on a team—researchers, students, parents, and teachers—working collaboratively to find new solutions for education.

We are also proud to work with Vanderbilt’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation to make our research more inclusive and participatory. One of the many excellent programs run by this center is a software internship program for college students or recent graduates on the spectrum. This summer, we are pleased to be welcoming three Frist Center interns who will be helping us on our Film Detective project.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?

Throughout my career, I seem to have gravitated towards questions that not many other people are asking, using methods that not many other people are using. For example, I am a computer scientist who studies autism. My research investigates visual thinking, but not vision. I work in AI, but mostly in areas out of the mainstream.

I get a lot of personal and intellectual satisfaction out of my research, but I do face some steep challenges that I believe are common for researchers working in not-so-mainstream areas. For instance, it is sometimes harder to get our papers published in the big AI conferences because our work does not always follow standard patterns for how studies are designed and implemented. And I do experience my share of impostor syndrome (feeling unqualified for your job even when you are performing well) and FOMO (fear of missing out), especially when I come across some trendy paper that already has a thousand citations in 3 months and I think to myself, “Why am I not doing that? Should I be doing that?”

I try to remember to apply the very lessons that my research has produced, and I am fortunate to have friends and colleagues who help lift me out of self-doubt. I actively remind myself about the importance to our species of having diverse forms of thinking and how my own individual view of things is a culmination of my unique lifetime of educational and intellectual experiences. That particular perspective—my perspective—is irreplaceable, and, more than any one paper or grant or citation, it is the true value I bring to the world as a scientist.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

I think research communities in general need to recognize that inclusion and diversity are everybody’s business, regardless of what someone’s specific research topic is. For example, we assume that every grant proposal and paper follow principles of rigorous and ethical research design, no matter the specific methodology. While some researchers in every discipline specialize in thinking about research design from a scholarly perspective, everyone has a baseline responsibility for knowing about it and for doing it.

Similarly, while we will always want and need researchers who specialize in research on inclusion and diversity, these topics should not be considered somehow peripheral to “real science." They are just as much core parts of a discipline as anything else is. As I constantly remind my students, science is a social enterprise! The pool of individual minds that make our discoveries for us is just as important as any piece of equipment or research method.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

A few years ago, when I was a newly minted assistant professor, I went to a rather specialized AI symposium where I found myself to be one of only two women there—out of over 70 attendees! The other woman was a senior researcher whom I had long admired but never met, and I felt a bit star-struck at the idea of meeting her. During one of the coffee breaks, I saw her determinedly heading my way. I said to myself as she approached, “Be cool, Maithilee, be cool, don’t mention the women thing…”  I was gearing myself up to have a properly research-focused discussion, but when she arrived, the very first words out of her mouth were, “So, there’s only the two of us, huh!” We both burst out laughing, and over the next couple of days, we talked about our research as well as about the lack of diversity at the symposium and in the research area more broadly.

The lesson I learned from this wonderful role model was that taking your rightful place in the research community does not mean papering over who you are. Certain researchers are going to be rarities, at least for a while, because of aspects of who we are, but that is nothing to hide. The value we bring as scientists comes from our whole selves and we should not just accept that but embrace and celebrate it.

This blog is part of a series of interviews showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For the first blog in the series, please see Representation Matters: Exploring the Role of Gender and Race on Educational Outcomes.

Dr. Maithilee Kunda is the director of the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence and Visual Analogical Systems and founding investigator for the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University. This interview was produced and edited by Bennett Lunn, Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

 

Autism Awareness & Acceptance Month

April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, a month dedicated to promoting true inclusion of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and supporting them in reaching their full potential. In honor of this, we reached out to researchers aiming to improve outcomes for learners with ASD through Early Career Development and Mentoring grants from the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). We asked these principal investigators how they got involved in ASD research and about their current NCSER-funded work. Below is what they had to say.

Stephanie Shire, University of Oregon

Photo of Stephanie Shire

I first interacted with young children with ASD as a teenage volunteer in a hospital playroom. As I learned more about children with special needs through summer camps and as an in-home aide, I grew more intrigued by the range of strengths and needs of these children. I found joy in finding ways to connect with children who had few or no words, but I lacked the tools to support their growth. This set me on a path to learn about the range of intervention practices and intervention science under the mentorship of Dr. Connie Kasari at the University of California, Los Angeles. My overall goal is to develop and test intervention programs to support the deployment of high-quality practices across the United States and abroad.

In the spirit of this goal, the purpose of my Early Career project, LIFT (Leveraging autism Intervention for Families through Telehealth), is to develop a technology-enabled version of an evidence-based, caregiver-mediated social communication intervention (JASPER; Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement, and Regulation) to be delivered by community-based early educators serving families of young children with ASD in rural areas. We are currently in Year 1 of our 4-year project. This development year is focused on the creation of the online JASPER intervention and training materials for early intervention and early childhood special education providers. Despite the demands of the pandemic, participating providers have engaged in training using video and role play and the majority are now able to put their skills to use with young children with ASD. We are currently conducting user testing of the online materials and preparing for next year’s randomized controlled trial.

Veronica Fleury, Florida State University

Photo of Veronica Fleury

My first experience working with individuals with ASD was in a college course on behavior modification. The professor directed an ASD clinic that provided therapy using many of the strategies we discussed in class. I completed an internship in the clinic and was intrigued by the application of research techniques to promote prosocial behaviors for children with ASD. After college, I secured a full-time research assistantship at the University of Washington in a large ASD study focused on genetics and neurobiology. This was a pivotal experience because I realized this was not the kind of research that I wanted to pursue. The results of these efforts, while extremely valuable, did little to directly improve the lives of the participants. I realized that I wanted to be involved in applied research that allows for quicker uptake by practitioners and benefits for individuals with ASD. In order to be a good applied researcher, I needed practical experience working with children with ASD and their families. Although my entry into preschool special education teaching was initially a means to an end, it drew me in and further fueled my desire to serve children with disabilities. After this experience, I continued my graduate education and am now in an academic position that allows me to use science to address socially significant problems faced by individuals with ASD and their families.

The goal of Project START (Students and Teachers Actively Reading Together), which is part of my Early Career project, is to develop an adaptive shared reading intervention for preschool children with ASD using a sequential, multiple assignment, randomized trial (SMART) design. The results will help determine whether a full-scale efficacy study is worth pursuing for the intervention in its current form or whether additional refinement and testing is necessary.

Melanie Pellecchia, University of Pennsylvania

Photo of Melanie Pellecchia

I became interested in research focused on improving implementation of evidence-based treatments for young children with ASD in under-resourced communities after many years of working with young children with ASD as a behavior analyst overseeing publicly funded early intervention programs. While working within a large, urban public-service system, I observed the widespread disparities in access to high-quality intervention and challenges with implementing evidence-based interventions to scale for young children with ASD. I sought to pursue an academic research career focused on improving these implementation challenges.

As part of my Early Career project, I am iteratively developing a toolkit of implementation strategies designed to improve parent coaching for young children with ASD in Part C early intervention systems. I am currently in my third year of this project and am incorporating information learned from a variety of sources to develop the toolkit, including direct observations of early intervention sessions, qualitative interviews identifying barriers and facilitators to using parent coaching within early intervention, literature on best practices in parent coaching and parent-mediated interventions for young children with ASD, and feedback from expert and community advisory panels. The toolkit will include a series of infographics, videos, and a community of practice housed within an online platform. This year I plan to conduct a pilot study of the toolkit to assess its feasibility and promise for improving the use of parent coaching for young children with ASD in Part C service systems.

Marisa Fisher, Michigan State University

Photo of Marisa Fisher

Most people assume I got into the field because I grew up with an older brother with Williams Syndrome. But I didn't really think of myself as a sibling of a person with a disability and how that experience had shaped my life until I was in graduate school. The real reason I entered the field was because of three little boys with ASD with whom I worked as a behavior therapist when I was in college. What was originally a job became a passion for supporting people with ASD and other disabilities and finding better ways to teach skills and improve outcomes. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, and it was my experience with these boys and my work at an ASD research lab that pushed me to pursue a doctorate in special education so that I could continue to work with people with disabilities.

Through my work with individuals with ASD, I began to realize the social struggles they and my brother experienced and became interested in studying experiences of social victimization and finding out why people with disabilities are more socially vulnerable than individuals without disabilities. The goal of my Early Career project is to do just that. A key part of this project involves assessing students’ self-reported bullying experiences. Although my original plan was to adapt and expand on existing measures, this didn’t result in a feasible assessment. Therefore, I turned my attention toward developing and testing an assessment that was appropriate for students with ASD and plan to use it to better understand the risk factors and consequences of bullying for these students. In general, my research is evolving from identifying and describing the risk factors to developing interventions to address those risk factors and reduce experiences of social victimization. My approach is to teach individuals with ASD to recognize and respond to situations and to evaluate ways to change attitudes toward individuals with ASD and improve social inclusion.

This blog was written by Alice Bravo, virtual intern for IES and doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Washington, and Katie Taylor, program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.

Meeting the Literacy Needs of Students with Autism: What Do We Know and Where Do We Need to Go?

April is Autism Awareness Month, which celebrates the importance of people with autism, the contributions they make every day to our world, and what we are learning about improving outcomes for the growing number of people with autism. IES supports research in this area, primarily through grants funded by the National Center for Special Education Research. Dr. Emily Solari at the University of Virginia (UVA) was awarded an IES grant in 2018 to lead an autism-focused postdoctoral training program. This program provides postdoctoral fellows with extensive research training in the academic, behavioral, and social development of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) from pre-K through their transition out of secondary school. Currently, their research focuses on literacy development, including reading comprehension and writing, in children with ASD.

Below we share a recent conversation with Dr. Solari about the importance of this work and what she and researchers at UVA are learning about literacy development.

What do we know about the needs of students with ASD in the area of literacy?

Photo of Dr. Emily Solari

Children with ASD have a unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses that impacts their academic development. Several studies by our research group and others have shown that children and adolescents with ASD are at risk for difficulties in the area of literacy. Some individuals with ASD show a particular strength in alphabet knowledge, including letter names and sounds, as well as reading words. A strength in word reading ability does not always translate into adequate reading comprehension. Many adolescents with ASD who can successfully read words still demonstrate difficulties with reading comprehension, especially comprehension that requires inferencing. Difficulties may be due, in part, to the highly social content that is embedded in stories. Children with ASD often struggle in the area of social communication and theory of mind (understanding others’ mental states), which may inhibit their ability to comprehend narrative texts. Additionally, we know that vocabulary and oral language are both important for reading comprehension; therefore, difficulties in these areas – often seen in individuals with ASD – may impact reading comprehension as well.

Similarly, the existing data show that children with ASD have a more difficult time with writing-related tasks, such as composition. Our work in this area suggests that these writing difficulties may be due to broader difficulties related to language development and social communication skills. 

What research is being done to address the needs of students at different ages?

While we are beginning to understand developmental trajectories of reading for this population, very little research has been conducted on specific interventions for reading and writing. Our research group has begun to look at early elementary (K-3rd grade) language and reading comprehension interventions for students with ASD. Our initial studies have shown that when we implement highly interactive language and listening comprehension instruction, these students show gains in oral language and listening comprehension. We have found that instructional strategies that use shared book reading, where the teacher reads aloud from a book and asks children targeted questions about the characters in the story, are effective. Our instruction also provides students practice with vocabulary words and opportunities to respond to texts both orally and through writing.

There are also other research groups investigating emergent literacy (prekindergarten years) with this population of students. For example, Jaclyn Dynia at The Ohio State University has engaged in work investigating strengths and weaknesses in emergent literacy skills such as phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print awareness.  Also, in the early childhood years, Dr. Veronica Fleury at Florida State University is engaged in some work in this area, including an IES-funded study aimed at developing and testing the feasibility of an adaptive shared book reading intervention for preschoolers with ASD. 

To address difficulties in reading comprehension with older students, Michael Solis and his team at the University of California, Riverside are using IES funding to develop and test explicit instructional routines and curricular materials for a reading comprehension and behavior intervention for students with ASD in upper elementary and middle school.

In collaboration with our colleagues at the University of California, Davis, we continue to analyze and publish developmental studies examining literacy skills. Additionally, we have become increasingly interested in understanding the transition from prekindergarten to kindergarten and early elementary school and how literacy is developing during this time. At UVA, we have started a longitudinal data collection project to investigate the relations among early reading, oral language, social attention, and cognition variables in young children with higher functioning ASD.

Our group is also starting to think about how we can design interventions that specifically target early reading skills and language development as well as social communication skills. Children’s books often provide very rich opportunities to engage around events and feelings that could be used to teach children with ASD social communication skills. Our next school-based intervention study will combine our previously successful language and listening instruction with targeted social communication instruction.

What recommendations or resources do you have for parents who are supporting children with ASD as they learn from home during the pandemic?

Here are some tips for reading at home with children. Additional resources are below.

  • Friends on the Block was developed through an IES grant as an early literacy curriculum for children with disabilities.  They have provided some free content online for use at home by caregivers.
  • Self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) is an approach that emphasizes direct instruction of writing strategies, knowledge, and self-regulation skills via flexible, recursive instructional stages. SRSD approaches have been shown to be effective for some elementary and middle school children with autism.
  • Book Share Time provides read aloud texts and allows caregivers to filter the books based on specific speech or language goals.

This blog was co-authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov) at IES and Emily Solari (ejs9ea@virginia.edu), and her IES funded postdoctoral fellows (Alyssa Henry & Matthew Zajic) at UVA.  IES hopes to encourage more research on students with ASD in the coming years in order to increase the evidence base and guide program and policy decisions.