A pathologist works at a table with a child and a puzzle.

Spectrum of Support

UA researchers come together to improve the lives of those with autism

By David Miller

Unearthing creativity and discovering one’s talents doesn’t happen easily, especially if one faces a social barrier.

For children with autism spectrum disorder, these barriers can impair social skills and limit their ability to make and maintain friendships into adulthood.

Art can be a medium to unearth critical social skills, and researchers at The University of Alabama are thinking beyond traditional interventions, like therapy and medication. UA researchers are currently in their third year of a novel intervention that combines theater and peer mediation to improve social and emotional abilities in children with ASD, ages 10-16.

“This is really shifting the tide, so to speak, in terms of evidenced-based treatment,” said Dr. Susan White, a psychologist at UA who directs the theater intervention program.

A pathologist works at a table with a child and a puzzle.
Jennifer Baggett, a licensed speech and language pathologist, works at UA Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic.

The novel approach is just one example of how UA faculty are approaching ASD research through different lenses. A new interdisciplinary collaborative, the Alabama Autism Cluster, was formed to help bridge the research-to-practice gap created as advances in research have revealed important findings related to genetics, identification and intervention. The group spans two colleges on campus, drawing from the disciplines of communicative disorders, psychology, special education and multiple abilities, and the educational neuroscience.

New methods of research and practice can better support the growing number of children diagnosed with autism, with currently one in 59 children affected.

“The Autism Cluster brings together an impressive group of multi-disciplinary scholars who are actively and collaboratively working to address the biological understanding, early identification, treatment and accessibility to services for individuals with ASD,” said Dr. Angie Barber, a speech language pathologist.

UA’s Center for Youth Development and Intervention, part of the research cluster, will soon enter its third year of SENSE Theatre, a community-based intervention that pairs children with and without ASD to rehearse and perform original scripts. More than 50 Tuscaloosa-area children have participated in the study, and early findings are promising, said White.

White and co-researchers have collected data on perceptions, social functioning and peer interactions, as well as electroencephalogram, or EEG, data. She said participants show greater responsiveness to social cues and increased interaction with peers.

“SENSE targets improved social development using evidence-based strategies,” she said. “The fact that it takes place in the community and involves peers helps promote generalization and learning transfer.”

Another campus collaboration is also working to improve interventions. Dr. Laci Watkins in special education and multiple abilities along with Dr. Theodore Tomeny in psychology will soon publish results of an interest-based play intervention that shows increases in social interaction between children with ASD and their siblings.

Theatre actors, ages 10-17, perform lines during a feature performance.
SENSE Theatre involved children performing a live, original script at Tuscaloosa Academy.

Watkins, who developed the intervention, said that children with ASD often have “focused, highlyrestricted interests,” which prompted her and Tomeny to incorporate mutually appealing interests into structured play activities between children with ASD and their siblings. Using simple behavioral strategies to introduce the activity to children, Watkins and Tomeny observed increases in “reciprocal interactions” in the intervention condition compared to play-time without the activity.

“We hypothesize that incorporating these highly preferred interests into play activities increased the social motivation of the child with ASD, thus resulting in more interaction,” Watkins said. “It also uses a strength-based approach to treatment by building on the child’s existing skills. This intervention, with the addition of peer support strategy training strategies for the typically developing child, is being studied now in classrooms in Beijing with similarly promising results.”

Watkins and Tomeny, who presented their findings at the Association for Behavior Analysis International Conference in Sweden, plan to replicate this peer training with siblings to explore if positive impacts generalize beyond school to home environments.

Other collaborations across campus include:

  • Watkins and Dr. Laura Morrett, educational neuroscientist and psychologist, are using non-invasive brain imaging and group interventions to investigate how social skills training affects social areas of the brain in 7-12 year-old children with ASD.
  • Rajesh Kana in psychology is developing a multi-disciplinary autism center at UA, White and Dr. Caitlin Hudac in psychology plan to examine the neural circuitry’s underlying mechanisms of emotion dysregulation in individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
  • Barber and Kimberly Tomeny, a doctoral student in special education, are conducting workshops statewide to bridge the research-practice gap in ASD and help put focus on supporting early interventionists as the frontline providers serving families of young children showing red flags for autism. Alabama’s age of diagnosis lags behind the national average, as does the amount of intervention young children with ASD receive through state funded programs.
  • Watkins and colleagues White and Dr. Lucy Barnard-Brak in special education are working to develop a guiding framework and training model that supports teachers in identifying and implementing focused intervention strategies to improve social, behavioral and academic outcomes for students with ASD. Watkins recently completed a successful pilot study in Tuscaloosa City Schools and plans to expand this research to other Alabama school districts.

Additionally, cluster researchers are using data collected through the ASD College Transition and Support Program, which provides individualized counseling and academic advising and serves as a bridge to other services across campus. For example, psychologist Dr. Laura Stoppelbein is collecting data to look at parenting and environmental factors and how they both influence overall adjustment in children and parents of children with ASD as well as planning to see how the different cluster of symptoms may impact parent adjustment/satisfaction.

SENSE Theater is funded through a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health. A service grant through the Alabama Department of Rehabilitative Services/Alabama Early Intervention System supports the workshops by Barber and Kimberly Tomeny.

Dr. White is the Doddridge Franklin Saxon Endowed Chair in Psychology and the director of the Center for Youth Development and Intervention. Dr. Barber is an associate professor and chair of the UA Department of Communicative Disorders. Dr. Watkins is an assistant professor of special education and multiple abilities. Dr. Tomeny is assistant professor of psychology. Dr. Morrett is assistant professor of educational neuroscience. Dr. Kana is a psychology professor. Dr. Hudac is an assistant professor of psychology. Dr. Barnard-Brak is an associate professor of special education. Dr. Stoppelbein, is a professor of psychology and director of the Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic.