Psychology Professor Recruiting Children for First-of-its-Kind Autism Study
October 15, 2012
Office of Communications
A Psychology professor is recruiting children in the Boston area for a first-of-its-kind study that will assess how children with autism adapt to the early school years and identify predictors that will lead to a successful transition.
The research, made possible by a $1.2 million grant, is led in Boston by UMass Boston's Assistant Professor of Psychology Abbey Eisenhower. The bi-coastal study is also run in California by Principal Investigator Jan Blacher, a University of California, Riverside professor and founding director of the SEARCH (Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community, Hope) family autism research center at the university.
The research focuses on the essential ingredients of a successful transition from intensive early intervention, which most children with autism receive when they are first diagnosed, to the public school system.
“Some children with autism transition quite smoothly from intensive home therapy or preschool into kindergarten, but for other families this transition is a rocky one, as children’s services are often reduced or less personalized,” Eisenhower said. “It can be hard for both parents and teachers, but some are successful in communicating with one another and working as a team. We need more research on what helps children succeed during this transition period, so that we can provide better support to both families and schools.”
Past research on typically developing children, not those with autism spectrum disorders, has demonstrated that the quality of children’s relationships with their teachers is related to subsequent academic and social adjustment. Close, positive relationships with teachers may protect them against social and academic problems in school.
The quality of student-teacher relationships may be particularly important for children with autism spectrum disorders because they often lack the social skills and have behavioral challenges that make it difficult to build positive relationships with teachers.
Blacher and Eisenhower received funding for the three-year project, called the Smooth Sailing Project, through a three-year grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
Eisenhower and Blacher, along with their graduate students and staff, are recruiting 180 children ages 4 to 7 who have been diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder, to take part in the study.
Prospective participants can be screened for eligibility at the UMass Boston campus. Families that are eligible will be invited back three times over 18 months.
During each visit, children will be assessed on their academic skills, with a focus on language and literacy. Parents will also be interviewed to assess perceived school factors, such as quality learning opportunities and child engagement. In addition, parents and teachers will complete questionnaires to measure factors such as the child’s social skills and behavior, the parent’s involvement in school, and the student-teacher-relationship.
In return, parents and children will receive $150, an assessment report after the first visit this fall, a parent-child DVD after the second visit in the spring and a developmental summary at the third visit during the following school year.