Professor Receives Grant for Study of Autism Intervention Program
Dr. Pamela Rollins
A UT Dallas researcher has been awarded a grant from the State of Texas to evaluate an early intervention program for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that could change the way the state administers early intervention for these children.
The grant — for more than $980,000 — is for research on a community-based program for toddlers called Pathways Early Autism Intervention Program.
“Our previous study has shown that Pathways is a very effective model for supporting young children diagnosed on the autism spectrum,” said Dr. Pamela Rollins, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “Now we will take a closer look at the program and one of its specific components — eye contact.”
The Texas State Legislature allocated the project’s funding, which is administered by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Autism Grant Program. The program supports research on the development of innovative models of intervention for children with ASD.
Pathways was developed to fit the service delivery model and guiding principles of Texas’ publicly funded early childhood intervention programs. Two North Texas women who had worked in public schools, one as a speech pathologist and the other as an educational diagnostician, started the program in 2010. So far, they have provided training to two early childhood intervention programs in the state, and are hoping to reach more.
The focus on family involvement, a home setting, authentic activities, and eye contact makes the program different. While not based on Rollins’ previous research, the teaching sequence of the Pathways program provides a test of her theories on how children with ASD can improve their social communication skills.
“For 30 years I have been working on this model that puts together different strands of social cognition, language and communicative intention; I believe strongly in this type of program,” Rollins said.
The research is a randomized control trial focusing on the effectiveness of the Pathways program on social communication and interaction.
“If it's effective, which I truly believe it is, we'll be training more and more people in early intervention and really beginning to change what early intervention is doing with kids on the autism spectrum.”
As part of the research, Rollins will measure eye contact using both an eye tracker and a video recorder mounted in a pair of glasses that parents will wear while interacting with their child. One control group will receive the same parent-mediated intervention without the innovative procedure for eye contact. A second control group will receive community-based services.
One goal of the research project is to further develop the efficacy of Pathways. A second is to determine whether the children’s development in eye contact contributes to their social and communication development. And a third goal is to develop an algorithm to identify which individual children will benefit from parent-mediated intervention.
“I believe that eye contact is the mediator of social change,” Rollins said. “If you work on eye contact, you may marshal neural networks that are already there but are not being used by children with ASD. That's what we are doing in this study.”
According to Rollins, the results of the research will be used to identify children and families who would receive the optimum benefit from the Pathways intervention. She hopes to expand the training of community-based interventionists in the Pathways model.
“If it's effective, which I truly believe it is, we'll be training more and more people in early intervention and really beginning to change what early intervention is doing with kids on the autism spectrum,” she said.
“General developmental early childhood intervention does not help develop social and communication skills in these kids. But most people don’t know the difference. So I expect research like this will help to educate state leaders on the specific needs of children with autism and to give providers tools on how to improve their programs,” Rollins said.
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