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Sunday, May 19
The Indiana Daily Student

campus academics & research

IU researchers receive $3.8 million for autism intervention project

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The Institute of Education Sciences awarded a $3.8 million grant to a group of IU researchers led by Hannah Schertz, a professor of special education at the School of Education, in August 2023. The researchers aim to tackle the necessity for improved early intervention approaches for toddlers with autism. 

Schertz and the IU Center for Evaluation, Policy and Research (CEPR) are partnering on the project, which is titled “Building Interactive Social Communication for Toddlers with Autism in Community-Based Early Intervention Systems.” Spanning a five-year period, the research will evaluate the effectiveness of the BISC framework. BISC utilizes mediated learning approaches to foster active involvement in the learning journey for both parents and toddlers, emphasizing the development of "learning to learn" skills, which include self-assessment, goal setting, time management and more. 

The framework is created for early intervention providers (EIPs) and their efforts to assist families with young children on the autism spectrum. Schertz says the preverbal stage, generally the first year of life, is a crucial period for social learning. This encompasses activities such as observing facial expressions, participating in reciprocal interactions like taking turns in simple games and sharing attention on objects, known as joint attention.  

These actions are considered social because they encourage us to shift our focus from our own concerns to understanding the perspectives and interests of others. Most importantly, engaging with others' interests provides us with a motive to communicate.  

Notably, this innovative approach can be applied either in-person or virtually, and it takes into account the unique linguistic and cultural preferences of the families involved. 

“We focus exclusively on the social elements of communication at the preverbal level because it is the central challenge in autism,” Schertz said. “Research shows that once children learn joint attention, a preverbal version of social communication, they are more likely to talk on their own; this knowledge inspired my interest in intervening to address this concern directly.”  

While traditional intervention methods prescribe specific strategies to parents, BISC encourages active parental involvement in the learning process, because it is the most important source of social learning for toddlers. EIPs will learn to guide parents to focus on social communication with their toddlers during everyday routines and play-oriented interactions. 

“It is important to focus on social elements of learning when early signs of autism appear in toddlers and to help parents understand their own capacity to help their children engage with them,” Schertz said. 

Schertz will oversee the recruitment of 165 participants and the implementation of the BISC framework in households in several states, but especially in Indiana.  

Co-principal investigators Patricia Muller and Jessica Lester utilize their expertise in their fields —Muller with expertise in research methodology and evaluation while Lester supplies expertise in cultural studies and qualitative research methodology, respectively— to contribute to the project. Muller, the director of CEPR, said she will personally oversee a randomized controlled trial (RCT) study to determine BISC's impact on key outcomes and conduct a cost-effectiveness study. The RCT focuses on assessing the results of parents applying mediated learning principles and the social-communication outcomes of children. 

“RCTs are considered the ‘gold standard’ for studying causal relationships because they provide the highest level of evidence on the effectiveness of interventions,” Muller said.  

Lester, a professor of qualitative methodology, will lead the qualitative analysis proportion of the study, specifically conversation analysis to study international practices. 

“In this work, I will be focused on assessing how the social interactional practices are impacted or not with participation in the BISC intervention,” Lester said. “This analysis will provide context for understanding underlying influences on observed impacts with a focus on understanding how and why outcomes are achieved.” 

This partnership offers a chance to assess how cost-effective and minimally disruptive this early autism intervention method can be. It could significantly influence practices and policies on a micro and macro level. This research aligns with the IUB 2030 strategic plan, which emphasizes transformative research and innovation. The grant expedites translational research that not only advances knowledge but also holds promise for enhancing the well-being of children in Indiana and beyond.  

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