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July 16, 2018

UMass Boston professors receive $1.4M grant to improve outcomes for students with autism

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  • Boston
Institute of Education Sciences grant to fund bi-coastal project

UMass Boston professors Abbey Eisenhower, Alice Carter, and Melissa Collier-Meek and their collaborators have received a four-year, $1.4M Institute of Education Sciences grant to help improve outcomes for elementary children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in general classrooms.

“We know that children with ASD, especially during the early years of schooling, face challenges in adapting to a general education environment,” said Eisenhower, an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator for UMass Boston. “We also know from our past Institute of Education Sciences grant that teachers are telling us they want or need more preparation for integrating a child with ASD into their classroom.”

During the course of this new grant, which started July 1, Eisenhower and team will be developing a professional development program for general education teachers with one or more students with ASD. In this first year, they’ll be conducting focus groups and interviews and developing a program for eight student-teacher pairs to try out. The curriculum will be focused on strategies for building an effective relationship with students and also for collaborating effectively with parents.

“We’re finding that 1 in 59 children will receive a diagnosis of autism, so it’s really an inevitability – when will a teacher in a general education classroom encounter a child with ASD. Teachers want to be prepared to help these students succeed,” Eisenhower said. “During our last study, we found that over the course of two years, there were some students with ASD who managed to have positive, close, low-conflict relationships with their teachers; we have been able to learn from their experiences to understand what fostered those strong relationships. We also examined the reading skills of children with ASD. One of the things that seems to foster growth in reading skills over time is having a strong foundation in the form of a close relationship with an early teacher.”

Jan Blacher, a distinguished professor of education and director of the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center in the University of California, Riverside’s Graduate School of Education, is the principal investigator of the grant. Angel Fettig, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s College of Education, is a collaborator on the project. Eisenhower says teachers in Massachusetts and California in the research study will be able to share challenges and successes with the researchers and each other via an online forum during the course of the grant. The idea is that this feedback will help the researchers eventually develop a program that teachers across the country can use.

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