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IES Grant

Title: Enhancing Peer Network Interventions to Improve Social Communication, Play, and Peer Relationships for Minimally Verbal Students with Autism
Center: NCSER Year: 2021
Principal Investigator: Biggs, Elizabeth Awardee: Vanderbilt University
Program: Early Career Development and Mentoring      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (7/1/2021 – 6/30/2025) Award Amount: $699,996
Type: Training Award Number: R324B210004

Mentors: Ann Kaiser; Michaelene Ostrosky; Nancy Brady

Purpose: The Principal Investigator (PI) will conduct a program of research focused on improving social, communication, and developmental outcomes for minimally verbal students with autism (ASD). The PI will also participate in mentoring and training to build skills related to intervention development, measurement of language and communication, interdisciplinary research, and grant writing and dissemination. Strengthening peer interactions and relationships for children with ASD who are minimally verbal is essential, as these relationships play a critical role in many aspects of development. However, the typical social and communication supports currently provided in schools for these students are inadequate. Students with ASD who are minimally verbal often have no access to a reliable mode of communication, rarely interact with peers, and have few reciprocal friendships. The current project aims to address this by adapting existing peer network interventions to address the unique needs of minimally verbal students with ASD (ages 5–9). The PI will add two novel components including (1) teaching peers without disabilities to model using a speech-generating device (SGD) and engage in responsive interaction and (2) teaching educational practitioners to embed naturalistic developmental-behavioral instruction during play sessions with peers and through one-to-one sessions with the student with ASD.

Research Plan: The PI will develop the intervention in two phases and evaluate its promise in a pilot study. The development phases will employ single-case design studies with embedded qualitative methods to identify factors that support or hinder successful implementation and improving the intervention's usability, feasibility, and effectiveness. Phase 1 will investigate the effectiveness, usability, and acceptability of training and coaching for peers on the social interaction strategies. Phase 2 will focus on the embedded instruction component. Both phases will include a total of four single-case design studies and semi-structured interviews with practitioners and peers. In the final year of the project, the PI will pilot test the promise of the full intervention by conducting a small randomized controlled trial with 18 student-practitioner dyads. Proximal and distal outcomes will be assessed, including communication and play skills, joint engagement with peers, reciprocal peer interaction, peer acceptance, and educator-reported playmates and friends. Fidelity of implementation by educational practitioners and peers will be measured using researcher-developed observational checklists and rating scales. Feasibility, usability, and acceptability will be assessed throughout the project through semi-structured interviews and questionnaires. The PI will also assess the costs of implementing the intervention during the pilot study.

Career Plan: Through a career development plan, the PI will build expertise in: (1) the use of mixed and multiple methods to develop interventions, (2) measurement of language and communication for students with ASD who are minimally verbal, (3) interdisciplinary research and practice, and (4) grant writing and dissemination. The PI will receive ongoing mentorship and training in the measurement of language and communication, implementation science, mixed method research, single-case research, and cluster-randomized trials and multilevel analysis.