Home / Posts Tagged "April 2014"

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention latest report estimates that 1 in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder. Those are daunting numbers, but there is hope. Produced by the Longhorn Network, this documentary focuses on three innovative researchers in the College of Education who are making an impact in the field of Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Video by: Longhorn Network

Interested in learning more about the Department of Special Education? Click here


More than 100 families with children with autism and developmental disabilities have received clinical services from a partnership between the College of Education’s Department of Special Education and Austin Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC). Andrew and his family are one example of the power of the partnership.
Audio slideshow: Christina S. Murrey
Narrated by: Taylor Rowland, special education graduate student and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist

The Department of Special Education and Travis County join forces to help families with children with autism

When the College of Education’s Department of Special Education launched a modest partnership with Austin Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC) eight years ago, no one could have foreseen the robust, multi-faceted program it would blossom into by 2014.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between us and ATCIC that’s been there from the beginning,” said Dr. Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education.

Under O’Reilly’s guidance, the department had recently established one of the first U.S. graduate training programs to specialize in preparing special educators, psychologists, and speech pathologists to work with children with autism and developmental disabilities and their families.

At the same time, ATCIC, a community-based behavioral health and developmental disabilities service provider, was struggling to provide enough board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) to serve its growing population of in-need families.

“An efficient and effective training program needs more than just ivory tower instruction. We have to link with those practices and we have to influence the community in positive ways.”

“We reached out to them and they reached out to us,” said O’Reilly. “We thought it would be essential as part of that curriculum to partner with community programs that actually deliver services to families who had children with autism. An efficient and effective training program needs more than just ivory tower instruction. We have to link with those practices and we have to influence the community in positive ways.”

At the outset the terms of the project were limited in scope: ATCIC would fund one University of Texas doctoral student to provide 20 hours a week of behavior supports for program families. Ten hours would be clinical services to families and the other 10 would fund student research.

This was a tall order, considering that challenging behavior and communication issues included potty training, eating difficulties, sensory issues, aggressive behavior, and self-injury.

“He came in and served as many people as he could, working in one little office downstairs,” said Maya Vega ATCIC Director of Intellectual and Developmental Services. “But the services that one UT Austin doctoral candidate was providing for this collaboration were of such high quality that we knew this was a relationship we needed to nourish and continue.”

Since then the Department of Special Education/ATCIC partnership has grown to include several separate and distinct branches that employ the skills of four to five doctoral students and about 10 masters students annually. In the eight years the program has been in place more than 100 children have received services.

“It’s basically four programs,” said Cindy Gevarter, a doctoral student in special education who supervises the program’s recently implemented Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program. “Behavior supports is where the program initially started. Doc students would go out, write behavior plans and do short-term follow-ups. But now that we have more support we’re able to actually go in to a home setting and teach a family how to implement those behavior plans instead of just saying ‘Here you go.’” The ECI program provides in-home behavior therapy for children ages 0-3.

Now, in addition to the long-standing behavior supports program, the partnership features an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) autism program, the ECI program, and a social skills program that is geared up to start this spring.

Both the ABA and ECI programs provide children from low-income families with free or reduced-cost behavior services in the home. Both approach therapy in a naturalistic manner, although ECI tends to involve more on-the-go parental interaction.

“With the autism program we do a formal assessment and then put together individualized programs from that assessment,” said Laura Rojeski, a doctoral student in special education and manager of the ABA program. “We might have 10 to 30 goals for a kid depending on his level of functioning, and we’re working on those and taking data on those. We’re always trying to do things in a more naturalistic way, making sure we’re not just sitting at a table, but with our 3-6 year-old population it’s a bit more structured.”

“With the ECI program it’s mandated by law that the parents must be part of the training,” said Gevarter. “It has to be what’s called ‘vetted instruction.’ If the natural routine for mom is to play for 20 minutes, have snack time, and then go outside, we’re following that. We’re not saying to mom, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do.’ We’re figuring out how we can work within routines that are already happening.”

The success stories that stem from these programs are manifold.

“We used to not hear from families,” said Vega, “but now we hear from them all the time. We have individuals who are using zero ability to communicate verbally who start working with these clinicians and a few months later they have a vocabulary of 20 words.”

Cassandra Medrano is just one parent who has seen life-changing positive results. Her four-year-old son Andrew has been involved with the ATCIC program for more than a year, and in that time has progressed from being almost completely non-verbal to signing and talking more frequently. Thanks to the hands-on therapy his behavior issues have also quieted.
“He’s actually around other kids without temper tantrums,” said Medrano. “Now he’s side by side with them. He doesn’t lash out. He’s able to attend school and actually sit down for a good five to ten minutes and do activities.”

The relationship O’Reilly describes is beneficial to all involved. ATCIC’s stretched-thin staff gets much-needed support; doctoral students receive leadership and supervision opportunities; masters students gain learning opportunities and a chance to complete work toward their Behavior Analyst Certification; and the Department of Special Education builds research partnerships that help advance the field from an educational perspective. Most important, families struggling with the issue of autism are granted a ray of hope and a measure of success.

“We get excited to see the kids making progress, such as speaking their first word or using a communication device,” said Rojeski. “But sometimes parent’s reaction to that progress is the greatest thing. Seeing how excited the parent becomes when they watch their kid communicate, learn new skills and do something without behavior issues, that’s just incredible.”

In keeping with The University of Texas at Austin’s motto, “What starts here changes the world,” the unique Department of Special Education/ATCIC partnership’s influence has extended well beyond Travis County.

“It’s not just the here and now in terms of training,” said Dr. O’Reilly. “Doctoral students have flown out of here and have been very successful in terms of getting jobs at universities all around the nation and replicating this program.”

Student Spotlight

Interested in learning more about the Department of Special Education? Click here

Stay connected with the College by following our social accounts.  We regularly tweet, post to Facebook, and show off our latest pics on Instagram.  You can also join us on LinkedIn to become part of our professional network.

[fb_embed_post href=”https://www.facebook.com/utexascoe/posts/10153119643731972/” width=”550″/]

[fb_embed_post href=”https://www.facebook.com/utexascoe/posts/10153201811011972:0/” width=”550″/]

[fb_embed_post href=”https://www.facebook.com/utexascoe/posts/10153150670531972/” width=”550″/]





Dr. Terry Falcomata’s involvement with education stretches back to his days as a seventh-grade language arts teacher. But it wasn’t until he tackled his master’s work in behavior analysis and training that he developed a passion for the research he currently pursues: assessment and treatment practices for challenging behavior exhibited by kids with autism and developmental disabilities.

One of Falcomata’s current focuses is a collaboration between the College of Education’s Department of Special Education with Bluebonnet Trails Community Service. Falcomata supervises a team of doctoral students who conduct a two-pronged assistantship based on a combination of research and in-home clinical work with children who demonstrate challenging behaviors and other skills deficits.

What is the Bluebonnet Trail Community Service?

It’s a community-based organization that provides services to individuals across eight counties. Bluebonnet has several services including ones that focus on early childhood intervention, mental health services, and autism services. We’ve partnered with the autism services program.

How is the work structured?

Ten hours of the assistantship is dedicated to clinical work in which our doctoral students work with families that are referred to our group. Typically, the focus has been on assessment and treatment for challenging behavior, but we’ve also worked with children and families on other skill areas such as self-care, toilet training, and other family priorities. The other 10 hours of the assistantships are dedicated to research activities, which gives us the opportunity to pursue our research agenda. This typically overlaps with our clinical work in assessment and treatment practices for challenging behavior. An advantage we get from the partnership is the opportunity to conduct research with families in the home and in the schools.

“Our results have consistently shown that children with little or no communication abilities can be taught communicative skills that replace their challenging behavior.”

What is your role in this project?

I supervise the work of the doctoral students. I also provide training when Bluebonnet requests some additional help. They call me into some cases to assist when they feel the circumstances are particularly difficult. We had a child recently who refused to go to school and had not been to school for an extended period of time due to his behavior. Two of my students and I developed a plan in conjunction with Angel Filer, a Bluebonnet BCBA. We arrived at the house at 7 a.m. every morning for about a week and a half and provided assistance to the family in implementing the plan. We taught them how to transition the child and actually rode with him in the family’s car to school, helped transition him into the school, and then faded ourselves so the family could provide that support themselves.

The program helps evaluate potential assessment and treatment practices in the community. Have you reached any conclusions or results along those lines?

Our results have consistently shown that children with little or no communication abilities can be taught communicative skills that replace their challenging behavior. We just completed a study in which we were able to teach children to vary their use of different modalities of communication. We have been researching some procedures that so far have been effective in facilitating children’s use of appropriate communication skills instead of challenging behavior by choosing from a selection of four to five other communication options when one fails to produce the outcome the child is requesting. The data showed that by teaching several different modalities of communication the children would use the appropriate communication instead of reengaging in challenging behaviors. And this delayed the reemergence of those challenging behaviors.

What is most rewarding for you personally about your involvement with this project?

It’s gratifying to see the doctoral students’ growth as clinicians and researchers and to see the interaction between them and the families as success is achieved with the children. It’s rewarding to participate in the process of identifying why the child is engaging in those challenging behaviors and then implement a treatment that teaches them to communicate. And then, to see the child start using appropriate communication and the parents’ excitement — we were part of that. It’s just a really powerful thing.

Interested in learning more about the Department of Special Education? Click here


“In the history of autism research, pretty much every brain region you can think of has been put forth as possibly being involved,” said Dr. Greg Allen, a neuroscientist in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, “because autism is so complex. Things come in and out of style as far as what people are studying.”

Theories may come and go like the seasons but during the 20 years he’s been studying autism Allen’s focal point – the cerebellum – has remained the same.

Tucked under the squiggly cerebrum, the cerebellum – Latin for “little brain” – is believed to play a pivotal role in motor control and cognitive functions such as attention and language.

“Since I was a graduate student my research has been in parallel areas that feed into each other,” said Allen. “One is to understand what the cerebellum does and one is to understand its role in autism.”

For many years the notion that the cerebellum might play a part in the development of autism was a controversial subject. The theory still attracts its share of naysayers but, thanks to tools such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and ultrasounds, Allen is on the way to demonstrating an important role for the cerebellum in autism.

“Currently, about one percent of children are now being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.”

“I started graduate school two years after functional magnetic resonance imaging was discovered,” he said. Suddenly scientists were using MRI to measure all kinds of changes in brain activity during various tasks and treasure troves of new data were becoming available.

“One of the really perplexing things coming out of these studies was that the cerebellum was almost always active, regardless of task. And you couldn’t explain it all by just the fact that the subject was moving around because people move very little in an MRI scanner. That, in part, led to this revolution in thinking about what the cerebellum was doing, which has also been a focus of my research.”

Because of these results, Allen and others came to see the cerebellum as more than just a coordinator of movement. He saw the delicate heart-shaped section of brain as potentially playing a role in the symptoms of autism. Data were being unveiled from his and other scientists’ research suggesting this was the case.

To obtain these data Allen uses four distinct MRI approaches to investigate differences between normal and autistic brains. Two look at brain structure while the other pair examines brain function.

“On the structural side we do an MRI that’s more akin to the kind you might get if you’re prescribed to go get a scan of some part of your body,” he explained. “Looking at a very high-resolution image of the cerebellum allows us to measure particular parts of it, distinguish between different types of tissue and get a better idea, anatomically, what the differences are in autism.”

On the other side of the coin, a method called functional connectivity MRI examines the three major pathways that lead in and out of the cerebellum.

“It looks at different regions and how well they’re working together, their fluctuations and signals across time,” said Allen. “You can put that information together with the structure to get an overall picture of the connections between regions.”

Studies examining underlying changes in connectivity and communication have been a hot area in autism studies in recent years, according to Allen. These investigative techniques have led to a revolution in thinking about the cerebellum.

“I’m using these tools to look at what might be getting in the way of that connection with other parts of the brain,” he said. “So it’s not just about what’s happening within the cerebellum but also what’s happening between the cerebellum and other areas.”

Asked about other ways his investigative approach differs from typical methods, Allen points to his current work with prenatal ultrasound images of the cerebellum. Although some scientists argue against the relevance of the cerebellum to autism because differences may not always be clear until later in life, Allen states there is plenty of evidence to suggest that those differences show up as early as before birth.

A key bit of information to consider when arguing that cerebellum differences are relevant to autism is determining when they first appear, which is where prenatal ultrasound enters the picture.

Allen is using ultrasound images to examine the cerebella of developing fetuses in the womb to better understand early cerebellar development in autism. “It’s a simple, standard measurement,” he said. “There are norms for it, so you can go in and look at it and say, ‘Okay, that cerebellum is small or large for that child’s age.’” Allen is now in the process of acquiring these measurements from children who were later diagnosed with autism in order to address the important question of whether cerebellar differences are present prenatally.

Despite all the available research and advanced investigative methods, the future of autism treatment remains murky, at least for the time being. Successful current solutions focus on changing things at the behavioral level.

Allen would like to understand more about how these behavioral methods are changing things at the brain level.

“Ultimately, we’d like to think there are treatments that will target particular brain regions and stimulate those regions at certain times of development to help build connections,” said Allen.

Helen MaloneYour story
I entered the doctoral program in 2002 after working as an in-home behavior specialist and teacher at the California School for the Blind, where I taught students with severe and profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. I constantly struggled with the idea that I wasn’t able to impact the lives of as many people with disabilities as I had hoped, and I felt somewhat isolated in my practice. I believed that entering a doctoral program would teach me how to reach a broader audience, and as a result positively impact more students with significant disabilities.

Why UT?
The special education program at UT Texas offered such a vast array of opportunities to me. I was given opportunities to work with students with various disabilities and hone in on the population of students I most enjoy working with; those with severe and profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to other world class faculty in the program, I was able to work closely with Mark O’Reilly and Jeff Sigafoos, developing my skills as a teacher and researcher. Through them, I learned to critically analyze the problems surrounding students with disabilities and develop solid research studies that would have positive impacts for the students while also adding to the field.

Life After UT
When I graduated I moved to Columbus, Ohio, and joined the faculty in special education at The Ohio State University, where I continue to conduct research with students with severe and profound intellectual and developmental disabilities and teach courses in applied behavior analysis and those related to severe and profound disabilities. I am in regular contact with my advisers and colleagues from the program, and use them as resources. The relationships I built at UT — both personally and professionally — have been some of the best.

Advice for Students
I would advise students to be open to new ideas and perspectives on the problems faced in special education. Rather than relying on any one perspective alone, I would encourage students to be open to the possibility of viewing the problems they are researching from different perspectives in order to find other, potentially better, solutions. A willingness to accept other views will also increase the potential of collaborating with others who see the same problems differently.

The annual Alderson Lecture and Hall of Honors luncheon celebrate the distinguished achievements of faculty, alumnus and current students in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education.

February 25th marked the 33rd Alderson lecture, and the seventh annual Hall of Honor ceremony. This year there were two additions to the Hall of Honor, and more than 40 student scholars honored.

The Alderson Lecture honors the late Dr. C.J. (Shorty) Alderson and the late Dr. Mary Buice Alderson, former faculty members who created a lasting legacy for both the University and their department.

Based on a demonstration of skill in leadership, professional involvement, service and academic research achievement, induction into the Hall of Honor is the most prestigious honor bestowed by the Department.

Photos by: Christina S. Murrey

Center for Community College Student Engagement
Community Colleges Can Foster Student Success by Supporting Their Adjuncts
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Read Full Article

“Adjuncts typically are hired at the last minute, and, once on the job, they lack access to orientation, professional development, administrative and technology support, and office space. They also don’t get the chance to network with peers about teaching and learning, and they’re shut out of campus discussions on how to improve student learning.”

College of Education
A Note From Manuel J. Justiz
The Texas Tribune
Read Full Article

“The strength of our alliance begins with a belief in quality, highly effective instruction and equal education opportunities for all learners.”

Brian Farr
MLB decides to cover all bases
Houston Chronicle
Read Full Article

“…we know that when it comes to concussions, damage can be cumulative and may not show up in its entirety for some time. We know that many players either don’t report, or under-report, concussion symptoms. So, there are probably many more concussions occurring during these violent collisions than are reported. We also know that once a person suffers a concussion, it is easier to suffer another.”

Despite the fact that, compared to full-time faculty, community college part-time faculty have less teaching experience, hold fewer advanced degrees, and are not on a tenure track, they are most often assigned to teach students who require more help, says a new University of Texas at Austin report.

Kay McClenney, Ph.D.

Kay McClenney, Ph.D.

According to “Contingent Commitments: Bringing Part-Time Faculty Into Focus,” part-time community college faculty members teach more than half of all credit-earning students and three-quarters of the developmental education classes, yet they tend to be less experienced than full-time faculty members.

The College of Education’s Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) produced the report drawing on data from more than 70,000 faculty survey responses and more than 30 focus group discussions with part-time and full-time faculty members, administrators and staffers at community colleges nationwide.

“In addition to having fewer years of experience and formal training, part-time community college faculty often face the frustration of feeling marginalized on campus and unaccepted as full partners in the college’s work,” said Kay McClenney, CCCSE director.

Many part-time faculty members report they feel like outsiders on their own campuses because they often:

  • Do not know whether they will be teaching until just days before the term begins.
  • Have limited or no access to orientation, professional development, college services or office space where they can work and meet with students.
  • Rarely, if ever, are invited to join in campus discussions about things the college can do to improve student learning, persistence and completion.

Past CCCSE reports have identified several high-impact practices that, when properly implemented, are proved to boost community college student engagement. Center data analyzed last year revealed the use of these high-impact practices is low across the board, and this latest report shows that part-time faculty members are using the high-impact strategies even less frequently than full-time faculty members.

“With this report we aim to give college leaders tools to better engage part-time faculty so more students have access to the educational experiences and supports they need to succeed academically,” said McClenney.

The report offers college leaders examples and discussion tools in the areas of hiring, setting expectations and orientation; professional development and support; evaluation and incentives; integration of part-time faculty members into student success initiatives; and creation of an institutional culture that embraces the role of part-time faculty members.

“What matters most? Students,” said McClenney. “Providing effective instruction from all faculty and support for the students should be at the heart of community college work.”

The report is part of “Keys to Student Success: Strengthening the Role of Part-Time Faculty in Community Colleges,” a CCCSE initiative funded by the MetLife Foundation. The center is a research and service initiative of the Department of Educational Administration’s Program in Higher Education Leadership.

Spare time is a rare commodity in today’s increasingly busy world. With so many responsibilities vying for our attention, it can be difficult to make time for extracurricular activities such as volunteering in our communities and schools. One organization that has no trouble attracting help from all walks of life is The Autism Project (TAP).

An initiative within the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, TAP provides a center of services, knowledge, and best practices related to living and working with children who have autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The program helps families obtain referrals to neurologists, generate ideas for meet-up groups, access movement-based programs and participate in outings such as the popular Candlelight Ranch camping excursions.

“In addition to seeking services, UT graduates return to TAP to volunteer their time at our camps as mentors.”

Pamela Buchanan, a kinesiology lecturer and co-founder and director of TAP, has inspired numerous students to give their time to the project both in and out of school.

“Former students typically return to volunteer once they are teaching or are parents themselves to ask about their children’s needs,” she said. “We have several alumni who now have children with autism. Now they seek the same services they once provided.”

“In addition to seeking services, UT graduates return to TAP to volunteer their time at our camps as mentors,” said Buchanan. “Some graduates become partners in programs with TAP and others continue to share their video editing and promotion talents. Most importantly, it is the UT alumni who return with financial support to TAP that enable us to continue providing services to children and their families.”

Liza Karseno, a school math instructional specialist, is one UT Austin alumnus whose passion for the program has lasted past graduation. Karseno started working with TAP because it was a requirement for a kinesiology class taught by Buchanan, but she quickly found that she gained not only personal but also professional growth from her involvement.

“In my first year of teaching I had a student with autism in my class,” she said. “I was able to use a lot of things I had learned from TAP to deal with a student with special needs in a general education classroom. That prompted me to go back and continue to volunteer with the program.”

Every year Karseno takes one of her own students on the Candlelight Ranch camping excursion and participates in any additional program events she can make the time for.

“Some of the things that I’ve learned with TAP have proven to be very beneficial as I work with special needs,” she said. “Because of that I feel like a continuing student who learns from Ms. Buchanan and [TAP co-founder and kinesiology professor] Dr. Jensen whenever I go back and spend time with them.”

Arturo Cisneros is a Youth and Community Studies major who will be graduating this May. Like Karseno, he was first exposed to TAP through one of Buchanan’s kinesiology courses. After his first volunteer weekend at Candlelight Ranch he was hooked.

“At the end of it I was amazed by the amount of growth I saw in these kids in just one weekend,” said Cisneros. “After that I said, ‘If I can be an agent for that much change in one weekend, I want to keep doing this.’ That is what kept me going back.”

Despite taking a heavy 22-hour class load, Cisneros continues to volunteer his time to TAP with no plans of stopping after graduation.

“Right now we’re just a small Austin-based organization,” he said. “I want to be part of the reason it grows. I want to make it so more kids can get involved.”

Arturo CisnerosArturo Cisneros

Youth and Community Studies Major
Class of 2014

What inspired you to volunteer your time?

“When I first started it was through a kinesiology course that I was taking. There were requirements for volunteering for at least one event. I went to an overnight camping event at Candlelight Ranch. It was a tough weekend but I learned a lot. As difficult a time as I had, at the end of it I was amazed by the amount of growth that I saw. After that I said, ‘If I can be an agent for that much change in one weekend I want to keep doing this.’ That is what kept me going back.”

Liza KarsenoLiza Karseno

Youth and Community Studies Major
Current AISD math instructional specialist
Class of 2006

Why do you give back to your alma mater?

“I volunteered when I was a student, but after graduation, during my first year of teaching, I had a student with autism in my class. I found I was able to use a lot of the things I had learned from my time with TAP that I could apply to my classroom. That prompted me to return and continue to volunteer with the program. Some of the things that I’ve learned proved to be very beneficial to working with students with special needs in the general education classroom.”

Find out more about TAP here.