UNT researchers use diagnostic testing, intervention services, behavioral therapy and counseling as a piece of the puzzle in understanding those with autism spectrum disorder and training professionals in the field.
BY: AMY ARMSTRONG
The latest statistics from the Texas Education Agency’s Texas Academic Performance Report show that there are more than 58,000 students with identified autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the state’s public schools. This number is expected to nearly double by 2020.
At the University of North Texas, faculty and staff in 12 departments spread across four of the university’s colleges are diligently working to understand the complexities of one of the biggest health and education challenges of our time and creating real-world solutions to help those living with ASD achieve their greatest potential.
For Demetria Ennis-Cole, the fight is personal. She says she was driven to autism research to know if the challenges her son, who was diagnosed with ASD at the age of 4, faces were universal and to learn more about ASD.
“It is rewarding and interesting work,” says Ennis-Cole, professor of Learning Technologies in UNT’s College of Information who has been at UNT for 25 years and has been conducting autism-specific research for the past eight years. She is focusing on technology utilization in learning. “Being able to point parents in the direction of resources that will help their children is important to me.”
Nationally, 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but only about a third of those students attend postsecondary education.
While those numbers can be sobering, there is hope that universities like UNT can provide an environment for students to be successful in school and life, says Kevin Callahan, executive director of the Kristin Farmer Autism Center (KFAC).
“We are definitely poised to be leaders in providing an exceptional educational opportunity to those with autism spectrum disorder,” he says.
A key component to the work being done at UNT is the KFAC, which provides invaluable services to the Denton community and beyond by offering individualized intervention services for school-aged children, adolescents and adults with ASD through applied behavior analysis and other evidence-based interventions.
The center currently serves about 50 families. In addition to those families, through a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Autism Grant Program, the center provides support to more than 80 families around the state who have a child with autism.
In July, the center hosted its 10th Adventures in Autism Intervention and Research Conference, which provided free registration to more than 100 families. Three hundred and fifty attendees learned about the latest in autism research, intervention and therapies from renowned experts and networked with hundreds of parents and professionals from the autism community during breakout sessions.
Another component is the recently founded UNT ENGAGE (Embracing Neurodiverse Groups in Academics and Gainful Employment) supports postsecondary students’ academic, social and mental wellbeing through collaborative and individualized services. The program was developed and implemented by UNT clinicians and researchers as a transition program to support students with ASD and other disabilities.
“We are so proud of the services that we provide and the hands-on training we give our students,” Callahan says.
“We are definitely poised to be leaders in providing an exceptional educational opportunity to those with autism spectrum disorder.”
— Kevin Callahan
executive director of the Kristin Farmer Autism Center
Karen Toussaint, assistant professor of behavior analysis in the College of Health and Public Service, has been conducting autism research for the past eight years.
“I have always been interested in understanding human behavior,” she says. “The science of it fascinates me but also the clinical interventions and working with families to provide solutions.”
Toussaint, who conducts research and also teaches at KFAC, recently completed and submitted research about observation learning and how it is often a skill deficit for children with ASD.
“Kids with ASD often do not learn really well by watching others,” she says. “However, our research shows that we can teach specific skills that allow children with ASD to readily learn while interacting with others.”
Ennis-Cole agrees. Her research has shown that children on the spectrum enjoy the user control, visual presentation and immediacy of feedback that technology such as tablets gives them.
“Getting the content directly through technology means they don’t have to ask a lot of questions, which can be daunting for kids on the spectrum,” she says. “If they enjoy the experience, they are going to be more receptive to learning.”
Ennis-Cole is currently awaiting the publication of her book, Seeing Autism Through Parents’ Feedback, Sketchnotes, Technology, and Evidence-Based Practices. The book was a collaboration between Ennis-Cole and Lin Lin, also a professor of Learning Technologies in the College of Information, with sketchnotes drawn by visiting research scholar Michelle Yang.
“I wanted to describe autism to people who have no knowledge of it,” Ennis-Cole says. “The book combines research with practical information people can refer to.”
Passing on knowledge
Faculty researchers from the College of Information, College of Health and Public Service and College of Engineering, recently completed a week-long STEM Camp to help increase awareness for students with disabilities. The pilot program, hosted at UNT’s Discovery Park, was funded by a Texas Workforce Commission grant and served about 22 individuals ages 14–20. Ennis-Cole helped with the camp, and says it gave faculty the opportunity to expose the kids to a variety of STEM activities, including virtual and augmented reality, chemistry, math, physics, robotics and engineering.
“These children don’t often get to experience these types of activities, yet it’s crucial to reach them,” Ennis-Cole says. “This was an amazing opportunity for us to do that.”
For Toussaint, she says she found a way to teach through video modeling that has proven to be effective. She also is conducting research into the most efficient way to train novice behavioral therapists. Toussaint has created an instructional module and is turning it into a virtual reality training to reach as many behavioral therapists as possible.
“Everything we are doing is with the recognition that kids with autism have a lot to learn,” she says. “We want to close the gap for each child.”