Institute for Autism Research Receives $3.4 Million Grant

BUFFALO, NY – The Institute for Autism Research (IAR) at Canisius College is the recipient of a four year, $3.4 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences (IES). It is the largest research grant ever awarded to Canisius College.

“The IAR is a leading center for innovative research and treatment programs for children on the autism spectrum,” says Richard A. Wall, PhD, interim vice president for academic affairs. “The new funding will allow the Institute to significantly expand on this and, at the same time, further the applied learning experiences and academic programming opportunities already available to undergraduate and graduate students. Canisius is grateful to the IES for its tremendous support.”

Established in 2009, the Institute for Autism Research is dedicated to better understanding autism and enhancing the lives of affected children. The hallmark of the neurological disorder is a pervasive deficit in social skills: children are socially withdrawn; they struggle to express their emotions; and are unable to read facial expressions in others. Additional impairments include narrow interests and obsessive routines. As children grow, their impairments often become more complicated, both behaviorally and emotionally, and may include problems such as depression and anxiety. Helping these children succeed academically and socially once they enter school is an area that has been largely overlooked.

The Institute for Autism Research will use the IES grant to evaluate the effectiveness of its newly-developed comprehensive school-based intervention program, schoolMAX, for elementary school children diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (HFASDs).

“The increasing number of students with HFASDs is posing a major intervention challenge to schools,” says Christopher Lopata, PsyD, co-director of the IAR and principal investigator on the IES grant. “This has led to a significant need for school-based interventions for students with HFASDs.”

SchoolMAX is a comprehensive treatment program that combines psychology with education to teach children appropriate social and communication skills and behaviors, and decrease their autism symptoms. Each treatment component targets a different impairment but the methodology is based on teaching specific skills and providing the students with multiple opportunities to practice the skills across the school day. Specifically designed activities that are fun in nature are also used for practicing skills with other students in natural settings.

Each time a child carries out a learned skill, the student receives immediate feedback to strengthen learning and the skill used is recorded on an individual daily note, or IDN.  The IDNs document the student’s progress and which treatment strategies work best in the classroom.  Parents also participate in parent education sessions and work with their children at home on specific skills.

Early pilot studies indicated that schoolMAX resulted in significant gains for children on the spectrum.

“Children demonstrated increased knowledge and use of social skills, a greater ability to read facial and emotional expressions in others, and a substantial decrease in the severity of autism spectrum disorder symptoms,” explains Marcus Thomeer, PhD, co-director of the IAR and co-principal investigator on the grant. 

SchoolMAX is an extension of the IAR’s summerMAX program, which was one of the first comprehensive treatment programs proven effective for children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders.  Children who participate in summerMAX consistently show vast improvements in their understanding of what social skills to use in a range of social situations, according to results from two randomized clinical trials.  “Children are also more likely to engage in social interactions compared to those who do not receive treatment, and maintain their social gains after completing the five-week program,” adds Thomeer.

The IES grant will fully fund a cluster randomized controlled trial to evaluate the efficacy of the IAR’s schoolMAX program.  The research project will take place in elementary schools throughout Western New York and involve 96 elementary students (grades 1-5), their teachers and parents over the course of four years.  The grant will also fund a total of 25 undergraduate and graduate research assistants each year, for four years. 

“The IAR is committed to training the next generation of researchers and practitioners so graduate and undergraduate students work closely with members of the IAR on a range of research and clinical projects,” says Lopata.  “Not only do they gain critical research and clinical skills but they also have the opportunity to earn academic credits.”

The Institute for Autism Research was created at Canisius to continue leading-edge research on autism spectrum disorders.  Housed in the newly-opened Science Hall, it provides researchers and affiliated faculty the facilities necessary to study and treat autism spectrum disorders in a collaborative manner.  This is the second IES grant awarded to the researchers at the IAR.  They previously received a three-year, $1.2 million research grant to develop and pilot test the comprehensive school-based intervention for children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders.

For more information on the Institute for Autism Research, click here or contact the Office of Public Relations at (716) 888-2790.

One of 28 Jesuit universities in the nation, Canisius is the premier private university in Western New York.