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Autism Bridges - Connecting our expertise to the greater world in meaningful ways

The goal of the Department of Special Education is to be a bridge of expertise for families of children with autism, and for the community. We provide a space for our faculty to conduct basic and applied research. We also prepare our students to create and deliver best practices in a variety of environments: the home, community settings, and as researchers at other institutions. Mark O’Reilly, Chair, Department of Special Education

Basic Research

Baby Talk

Micheal Sandbank, assistant professor, is studying how typically-developing children and those with developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies may provide researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, eventually leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. They may also inform intervention practices for children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using something resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses.

 

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), describes a set of behaviors associated with specific differences in how the brain perceives and processes environmental input.

1 in 68
children have been identified with ASD.

Boys: 1 in 42 | Girls: 1 in 189
It’s around 4.5 times more common among boys than girls.
44%
of children with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability.

Source: Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network

 


How is autism diagnosed?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed by looking at criteria in two categories: Social Communication and Behavior.

What are the major transitions in the life of someone with autism?

1. Diagnosis (Typically age 2-4)

Research has shown that most children are diagnosed with ASD around age 4, though a diagnosis of autism at age 2 can be reliable, valid, and stable.

2. Transition to Schooling (typically age 5-6)

Parents and guardians begin to navigate the school system.

3. Transition to postsecondary life (typically age 18-22)

Early interventions, public awareness and K-12 support have increased educational opportunities for children with autism. But what are the options for life after high school?

Applied Research

Bluebonnet Trails

The Department of Special Education collaborates with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services in Georgetown. This collaboration allows doctoral and master’s students to provide family-centered applied behavior analysis (ABA) in home and community settings for children between the ages of 3 and 15 who have a diagnosis of autism and live in Williamson, Travis and surrounding counties.

Programs are embedded into daily routines. Graduate students may accompany a family to the grocery store to work on making a successful shopping trip, or to the library to follow rules in the community related to staying with a parent.

This collaboration offers families interventions that reduce challenging behaviors and increase and improve communication, daily living skills, and abilities related to health and safety. They also increase social opportunities that children and young teens have through their relationships at home and in the community.

The result is long-lasting change. Parents learn to implement strategies rooted in behavioral principles that are supported by applied research in the field of autism, behavior analysis, and special education.

“Families get immediate solutions to challenging behaviors that may be occurring throughout the day. Our children learn skills and behaviors that support higher learning at home, in the community, and at school.” – Suzy Albarran, BCBA Second-year doctoral student, Field Supervisor, Bluebonnet Trails

 

“Everyone I worked with helped my family so much. My child is now able to take care of his basic needs without my help because of their guidance and interventions.” – Noemi,mother of child with Autism

Next Generation Research

Special Education graduates are leading research at major universities across the country, including:

  1. Wendy Machalicek, M.Ed, ’04, Ph.D., ’08, University of Oregon—Effective behavior analytic assessment practices and interventions addressing the behavioral and educational needs of young children with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
  2. Mandy Rispoli, M.Ed. ’04, Ph.D. ’09, Purdue—Functional behavior assessment and function-based intervention for challenging behavior in children with ASD and developmental disabilities
  3. Helen Malone, Ph.D. ’05, Ohio State University— Teaching new skills to individuals with severe to profound disabilities and assessment/ treatment of challenging behaviors
  4. Colin Muething, Ph.D. ’16, Emory University— Novel treatments for severe problem behavior, the mechanisms that mediate their effectiveness and reporting large outcomes from these treatments
  5. Tonya Davis, Ph.D. ’08, Baylor University— Treatment of severe challenging behavior among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Beyond Autism

Faculty in the Department of Special Education and its associated centers provide research across the spectrum of learning and behavioral disorders—focused on topics like intensive math and reading interventions, design and evaluation of assistive technology, supporting bilingual students, and the transition to post-school employment for people with disabilities.

Research on learning and behavioral disorders is a growing need. In 2014–15, 13 percent of all public school students—ages 3–21—received services for learning disabilities and/or behavior disorders.  Learning disabilities in particular are the most prevalent; children with learning disabilities represent more than one-third of all school-age students with disabilities.

It can be difficult for those with a fine motor disability to complete certain gestures. An undergraduate researcher is studying how different forces or force combinations may be more strenuous to conduct than others. By having volunteers perform specific motions, his research has the ability to assist physical therapists in demonstrating therapy processes to patients.

Pinching motor skills apparatus

Motor Skills Apparatus

Jacob Vines, senior Kinesiology and Health Education student, was awarded the Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Office of Undergraduate Research for spring 2018. His novel exploratory project titled “Digit Force Magnitude and Inter-digit Force Coordination Effects on Performance of a Complex Low-Level Force Pinch” examines motor function in adults.

Inspiration for Research

While working in the Motor Coordination Lab led by Professor Lawrence Abraham, Vines was inspired to pursue this research after seeing the crossover between the research of hand and finger motor control and the process of rehabilitation of hand and finger injuries in physical therapy.

Research Overview

In his research project, volunteers perform a complex coordination task to determine the dexterity of right-handed adults aged 18 to 30 years with no known neurological or musculoskeletal disorders of the right hand or arm.

Photo of Jacob Vines

Jacob Vines

“The complex coordination task was to use the right thumb and index finger to move a cursor counterclockwise around a diamond shape that was placed in four locations on the computer screen (up/down/right/left). For this task, force with the index finger moved the cursor vertically and force with the thumb moved the cursor horizontally,” said Vines.

“The choice of doing the index finger and thumb is to imitate general fine motor control like unbuttoning a shirt, and the use of the diamond task is to have varying forces between the thumb and index finger, which occurs in everyday life activities,” said Vines. “By using different finger combinations or a different task, the result would change completely from the current study. It would also not be as applicable to everyday life activities.”

Advice for Students Pursuing Undergraduate Research

Vines credits the research with helping guide him in pursuing a professional career. He has been able to better understand the process of scientific research as he decides whether or not he wants to pursue physical therapy and research different physical therapy techniques.

He advises students who are interested in conducting research to “formally and confidently email different labs doing research that you find interesting. Also, talk to any professors who teach classes you enjoy and ask if they have any open undergraduate research positions.”

A casual conversation on a flight from back to Austin from Newark led to an appearance on the Dr. Oz Show for Tim Fleisher, a Ph.D. candidate in exercise science in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education.

On an episode set to air May 16, 2018, Fleisher shares his research and exercise techniques to ease lower back pain and strengthen abdominal muscles.

“I sat next to Dr. Oz on a flight on the way back from working with the Harvard swim team at their Ivy League championships.  He sat down next to me and we just started talking. I am the head of the BIO 446L anatomy lab, so I had my iPad that I teach from. He went to Harvard and his son is on the water polo team. We immediately hit it off and I pitched him on the idea of balloons to strengthen the abs. He loved it and here we are,” says Fleisher.

Fleisher does his research in the Neuromuscular Physiology Research Laboratory at The University of Texas at Austin. He focuses on neuromuscular recruitment strategies of the deep hip muscles in healthy individuals versus women with postpartum stress urinary incontinence. Fleisher is also a STOTT PILATES instructor trainer and licensed massage therapist that focuses on post rehabilitative and “prehabilitative” strategies to help people with movement impairments.

Fleisher says he got the idea for his research when he was working in Brazil as a certifier for Pilates instructors. He pitched the idea to Associate Professor Lisa Griffin, of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, and thus became a part of the program.

Fleisher’s appearance on the Dr. Oz show will be May 16, 2018, at 1 p.m. CST on Fox (Fox 7 KTBC in Austin). Fleisher has produced a full-length video that demonstrates the exercise he presents on the show.

 

“A Hauntology on Data: Diffracting Specters of Racialization Toward an Autopoietic Turn/Overturn”

As Avery Gordon (1997) reminds us, there are already ghosts or hauntings in the seemingly present; what might be understood as an absence of presence, and a complex history and subjectivities. Indeed, the haunting demands sociopolitical significance as Derrida (1994) cogently states it “is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it” … “in the name of justice.” In this talk, Dr. Dixon-Román will begin by providing some theoretical articulations of, to, and with, the ghosts of data assemblages. While in the computational turn there has been increasingly more theorizing on data (de Freitas, Dixon-Román, & Lather, 2016; Gitelman, 2013; Kitchin, 2014), few have focused their examination on the sociopolitical forces imbued in data. In recent work, Dixon-Román (in press) has engaged Sylvia Wynter’s (2001, 2007) theories of power, inheritance, and the human in order to theoretically examine and postulate the ways in which the assemblages of data become haunted by sociopolitical relations of racialization. Dixon-Román will engage, in this talk, new materialisms and black literary feminists in order to develop a process of social inquiry that conjures and speaks of, to, and with the ghosts of data assemblages in order to move toward address/redress and reconstitute the human.

Dr. Ezekiel Dixon-Román is an associate professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. His scholarship focuses on the cultural studies of education, quantification, and social policy. He maintains a program of research that philosophically rethinks and reconceptualizes the use of quantitative methods from a critical theoretical lens (broadly conceived), particularly for the study of the biopolitics of human learning and development. Dr. Dixon-Román has published in leading social science, education, and cultural studies journals such as The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Transforming Anthropology, Urban Education, Teachers College Record, and Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies. Dr. Dixon-Román co-edited Thinking Comprehensively About Education: Spaces of Educative Possibility and Their Implications for Public Policy (Routledge, 2012), “Alternative Ontologies of Number: Rethinking the Quantitative in Computational Culture” (Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies, 2016), and “The computational turn in education research: Critical and creative perspectives on the digital data deluge” (Research in Education, 2017). He’s also the author of Inheriting Possibility: Social Reproduction & Quantification in Education (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

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