Institute for Autism Research Awarded $925K Grant

July 7, 2022

BUFFALO, NY – Researchers at the Institute for Autism Research (IAR) at Canisius College were awarded a three-year grant totaling approximately $925K from the U. S. Department of Defense (DoD) Autism Research Program to test a unique school social intervention for autistic children.

Addressing the complex social challenges of autistic children (without intellectual disability [ID]) is difficult and social skills interventions are sometimes used in an effort to improve their social performance and outcomes. Despite the clear need, few receive systematic and effective social intervention. Studies of social interventions delivered in clinical settings for this population have suggested some positive effects but the benefits rarely translate to school settings. Efforts to develop and implement school social interventions have been hindered by barriers in the school environment such as lack of resources, staffing and training, and limited time during the school day. As such, there is a need for feasible and effective social interventions that can be delivered by non-professional (paraprofessional) school staff in school settings, including as part of after-school programs.

Researchers at the IAR have developed many effective social interventions for autistic children (without ID) that have been delivered in clinical and school settings. Utilizing staff training techniques and social intervention strategies from their prior work, the research team developed an innovative after-school social intervention for delivery by paraprofessionals. Funding from the grant will be used to test both the feasibility and initial effects of the social intervention.

“Paraprofessionals in the study will receive specific training in the social intervention and practice implementing it until they reach a preset level of accuracy prior to beginning the intervention,” said Christopher Lopata, PsyD, one of the study’s principal investigators. The intervention is then conducted four days per week, 90 minutes per session, over eight weeks in group format as part of each school’s existing after-school program, and each session includes a social skills group, social recreational games and a reinforcement system. Two trained paraprofessionals conduct each session and the groups consist of 12-15 children including two autistic children (the remaining are non-special needs peers). Feasibility of the intervention will be assessed using attendance and satisfaction ratings, as well as the accuracy of implementation by the paraprofessionals. Child outcomes will be assessed using measures of social understanding, social skills and autism-feature severity administered before and after the intervention.

The grant will allow the researchers to compare outcomes for the autistic children randomly assigned to the social intervention to autistic children randomly assigned to the waitlist condition.

“Utilizing a waitlist control group ensures that all the children will have access to the social intervention, while also allowing us to better assess the interventions effects,” explained Jonathan D. Rodgers, PhD, a principal investigator on the study. A total of 48 autistic children, ages 7-12 years, will participate in the study over the three-year period. According to Marcus L. Thomeer, PhD, a principal investigator on the study, “paraprofessionals are an under-utilized resource in school settings. This innovative social intervention takes advantage of existing resources and programs, substantially expands access to social programming, improves paraprofessionals skills and minimizes the burden on school staff during the school day.” Including non-special needs peers who are already attending the after-school program also provides the opportunity for the autistic children to develop relationships with peers in the same school.

The team of principal investigators includes Christopher Lopata, PsyD, Marcus L. Thomeer, PhD, Jonathan D. Rodgers, PhD, and James P. Donnelly, PhD.

Their work is being supported by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs endorsed by the Department of Defense, through the Autism Research Program (Clinical Translational Research Award), under Award No. W81XWH2210688.

For more information regarding this study and/or the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College, visit www.canisius.edu/iar or call the Office of College Communications at (716) 888-2790.

Canisius College is one of 28 Jesuit colleges in the nation and the premier private college in Western New York. Canisius prepares leaders – intelligent, caring, faithful individuals – able to pursue and promote excellence in their professions, their communities and their service to humanity.