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Teaching children with autism drives student, faculty research

November 06, 2013

As the number of American children with autism spectrum disorder continues to escalate, two Arizona State University undergraduates are combining their interest in autism with research projects guided by a faculty expert.

“We can’t prepare teachers fast enough to work with students having autism in their classrooms,” said associate professor Juliet Hart Barnett of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Her research and teaching interests include instructional/behavioral strategies that promote access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders.

Early in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in 50 school-aged kids in the United States has autism. Data from a national phone survey of parents revealed that number has risen significantly in only five years, with one in 88 children from six to 17 years of age identified as autistic in 2007. The CDC attributed the increase to improved diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders, particularly in older children.

ASU senior Tara Boyd, journalism major, and Shannon Cleary, a sophomore majoring in secondary math education, are Barrett Honors College students who first met Hart Barnett through the class titled “Orientation to Educating the Exceptional Child.” Required of all education majors, SPE 222 also is open to ASU students of any major as a means of exposing them to disability topics they may later explore working with mentor experts. Teachers College offered TEL 494 “Supervised Educational Research Experience” for the first time this fall.

“What’s magical is when the research that education faculty are conducting in local schools is brought into our classroom and ASU students get involved,” Hart Barnett said. “Two things happen: the students benefit from practical research experience working alongside knowledgeable faculty and they also get a headstart preparing for graduate study.”

When Boyd graduates from ASU in December, she takes with her a degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a roadmap for pursuing her interest in communicating with children with autism. “For three summers, I was a paraeducator in classrooms where I worked one-on-one with kids having autism,” she explained. “It was through that experience that I learned what I wanted to do.”

Boyd spent two months meeting with Hart Barnett before they finalized her research topic – developing five criteria for evaluating iPad apps designed for use with children with autism. Her literature review of past research showed that, typically, these students were using “icon cards” with pictures on them to communicate their needs to their teacher. Boyd and Hart Barnett teamed up to study replacing this decidedly low-tech approach with using the iPad as a more effective instructional tool.

“If you search the iTunes store, you’ll find more than a hundred apps designed for helping children having autism,” Boyd said. “We wanted to come up with reliable criteria that teachers can use to determine which app is best-suited for their students’ needs.”

She said these criteria include the need for teachers to evaluate if the app is compatible with students’ motor control capabilities, how much time is needed for educators to teach these students to use it and if the benefits of using the app to reach students justify its cost. Boyd plans to start a master’s program in special education in January 2014.

As a future math educator, Cleary became interested in how students having autism may struggle with learning math while taking SPE 222 with Hart Barnett last year. She asked the professor if she could work with her, and together they developed the idea of researching mathematics intervention strategies for these students at the secondary level. This semester Cleary is completing a literature review, and next semester she plans to implement one of the strategies in a real-world classroom with children with autism.

“I love algebra,” Cleary said, “so I’m hoping that we can do an intervention strategy using algebraic material. I’m looking at various math instruction approaches already tried with students having autism in order to pick one I think will work best for teaching algebra.”

She added that most of the teaching strategies she uncovered in her lit review had to do with mastering life skills, rather than academic subjects. “I want to broaden their understanding of math and teach them more difficult mathematical concepts to see how successful they can be.”

Both Boyd and Cleary plan to use their autism research to fulfill the thesis project requirement for all Barrett students. They also will cite their research when applying to graduate schools and eventually, in seeking employment. Additionally, Hart Barnett is working with both students to have their findings published in education academic journals.

“Sometimes I think we underestimate the insight that students have in seeing problems in the world and wanting to make a contribution to solve them,” Hart Barnett said. “As ASU faculty, we need to offer them that opportunity.”