Program at University of North Texas assists toddlers with autism by teaching their parents

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Toddlers with autism are learning simple skills mastered by most children before their first birthdays - talking and smiling and looking at their parents - thanks to the training that the toddlers' parents are receiving through the University of North Texas' Family Connections Project.

The program is part of the North Texas Autism Project, a service learning project that the UNT Department of Behavior Analysis created in response to a growing local and national need for qualified providers of behavior analysis intervention for children with autism. The department offers professional training in Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, which is a scientific method of studying and modifying observable behavior. UNT was the first university in the Southwest to offer professional training in this area.

Intervention approaches derived from ABA have been the only treatment for autism scientifically documented to make positive, lasting changes in language, social skills and behavior in youngsters with autism, said Dr. Shahla Ala'i Rosales, UNT assistant professor of behavior analysis and director of the North Texas Autism Project.

The project began in 1997 to serve preschoolers ages 3 to 5, with UNT graduate students and faculty members working directly with the children on language and other skills to prepare them for school. The Family Connections Project, which is currently funded through fees paid by families for services, began last year for infants and toddlers who are 30 months old or younger.

Several families have enrolled or are currently enrolled for at least 20 sessions, which take place in the Family Connections playroom in the Department of Behavior Analysis and in the children's homes. Family Connections is currently accepting applications for the Fall 2007 semester.

Ala'i Rosales said starting a program for toddlers was important for the North Texas Autism project because "autism is now being detected at much earlier ages than in the past - definitely at 18 months, and maybe even at 12 months."

ABA-based interventions have been used with children with autism for more than 30 years. Past research has proven that a child who starts ABA-based therapy when very young may not need special education in school, will learn important life skills, and can often lead a productive life as an adult.

In the Family Connections Project, UNT faculty and graduate students teach the toddlers' parents to teach their children functional communication, social play and other skills. The parents interact with their children as part of everyday family routines and activities, rewarding desired behavior with a reinforcer - a favorite play activity, toy or food - as encouragement to repeat the behavior.

"The parents are the ones who will stay with the children throughout their lives, so it's important that learn how to teach the skills to their children," Ala'i Rosales said. "We teach them how to decide if it's a good time for teaching. One very important thing is that they need to smile and have fun with their children, and focus on every small win."

Parents and UNT students work together at the start of the training sessions, choosing three starting goals for the child that will improve family life, she said.

"It's really about teaching relationship skills to children, since they often have to learn those things we take for granted, such as talking and looking and smiling at others," she said.

Ala'i Rosales said most of the training sessions involve orchestrated play. While a 3- or 4-year-old child with autism could spend part of the time sitting at a desk to work with a parent or therapist on language skills, "that wouldn't work for an 18-month-old."

Jessica Broome, a third-year master's student, said using ABA with toddlers "is very child-centered" and involves parents learning systematic planning and responding. She said that finding reinforcers for children with autism is often difficult because children diagnosed with autism fixate on a few behaviors, such as flapping their hands or hoarding, and show little interest in most toys.

During their training, the parents learn to identify and increase the number of toys and activities that their toddlers enjoy. The parents are then taught to use these enjoyable items and activities to help their children learn.

Jackie Shenkir of Keller enrolled in Family Connections last August, just after her son's second birthday. She and other family members got him to play with a broader range of toys, such as plastic bugs and animals and a ball, then used these toys as motivators for him to be more interactive and to speak. She said that by the end of her training, the little boy who always turned his back on others began saying words, bringing toys to her and other family members and "even started hugging us more."

"We wanted him to speak and establish eye contact for requesting things," she says. "He's now realizing that he needs to vocalize when he wants something, and he started saying words, like ‘ball,' ‘bug,' ‘tickle' and ‘go.'" Knowing that he can communicate with us more has made him feel good about himself."

Shenkir said her son is now in early intervention therapy through the North Texas Autism Project, working one on one with a UNT student for 30 hours a week.

"His speech has not only improved - he's progressing in all areas," Shenkir said. "He was very picky and would eat only certain foods, but now he's trying so many more foods. His sleep has gotten better, too."

She added that training in the basics of behavior analysis is very important for parents of children with autism because "you have to continue instructing the child even after early intervention therapy ends."

"The parent training has helped us greatly. Before, we felt helpless because we didn't know how to interact with him," she said.

Ala'i Rosales said another parent in Family Connections gave her child access to toys based on his attempts to communicate and played with him after successes. The child, she said, "now has a vocabulary that is growing every day."

"Each small action and each parent and child gain through teaching has a cumulative effect, and often it is an amazing and joyful effect," she said.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108