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For parents and caregivers of children with autism, new research shows that there’s no place like home—or the park or a classroom—to provide effective learning opportunities to support their child’s development of language, social communication, and play.

Highly structured and formal interventions are valuable, and now there is evidence to show that techniques that family members and other caregivers offer in natural settings are valuable, too.

Micheal Sandbank was principal investigator of a research team that conducted the first meta-analysis of studies designed for young children with autism. Sandbank is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education in the College of Education. The multi-university research team examined 130 reviewed studies of non-pharmacological interventions.

The interventions are particularly effective for supporting language, social communication, and play development, she says.

The analysis was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin and marks the first meta-analysis of 130 reviewed studies of non-pharmacological interventions designed for young children with autism.

“There is more high-quality evidence supporting these interventions for natural settings, or naturalistic developmental behavior interventions (NDBIs) than some traditional approaches for aiding young children with autism,” Sandbank says.

NDBIs are early intervention techniques that are implemented in everyday settings by clinicians, educators, and other caregivers, as opposed to more structured and formalized interventions. These techniques use behavioral strategies to teach developmentally appropriate skills to young children with autism.

An NDBI strategy for teaching a child to say the word ‘ball’ might include playing with a ball in the park, saying the word multiple times, and using it in context.

These strategies were created to be easily integrated into routine activities throughout the day to have maximum impact for children.

Although NBDIs are not new, categorizing them as a specific type of intervention is, Sandbank says.

In 2015, the developers of these interventions wrote a consensus statement declaring that they were similar approaches guided by a shared philosophy. “This statement allowed us to consider their evidence together, rather than separately,” Sandbank says. “We also found similarly strong evidence that developmental interventions are effective for supporting social communication development in children with autism.”

“Meta-analysis allows us to see whether interventions are more or less effective depending on different characteristics of the participants and the intervention – it helps us determine what works and for whom,” Sandbank says.

The meta-analysis showed that although traditional intervention methods such as early intensive behavioral intervention have promising evidence supporting their use, more high-quality research is needed.

In addition, the research concluded that there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of several other types of interventions, including TEACCH, which focuses on learning strengths and preferences of the individual with autism; sensory-based interventions; animal-assisted interventions; and interventions mediated solely through technology. Approaches that integrate technology, such as high-tech augmentative and alternative communication devices, into more established interventions appear promising, according to this meta-analysis.

Additional research by Sandbank and the team on autism interventions has found that interventions are often more effective for kids with more language skills and are more effective for improving spoken language compared with understood language.

The team is continuing to explore other findings related to how intervention results vary based on different characteristics of the intervention, participants, or the outcomes that are being tracked.

“The evidence regarding intervention for children on the autism spectrum has been rapidly transforming,” Sandbank says. “The last decade has seen the publication of more than 100 group design studies of intervention, including at least 50 randomized controlled trials. These studies attest to the fact that access to intervention in early childhood can yield a range of positive outcomes for the children receiving it, but we have further to go to improve the quality of our evidence.”

At times, parents can be teased for using “baby talk” with their young children. But it turns out that baby talk, the slow, elongated, varied-pitch manner in which parents often speak to babies and small children, may actually help with their language and speech, an insight that could be helpful for children with autism.

Micheal Sandbank is studying how typically developing children and those with developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies are providing researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, with an eventual goal of leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. The studies may also inform intervention practices for children with autism. Sandbank is an assistant professor and area coordinator for early childhood and special education in the College of Education.

Photo of young girl wearing brain sensorsThrough their research, Sandbank’s team has found that the word processing “signal” is strongest when typically developing children hear words spoken in baby talk rather than adult-directed speech. This is even the case with children as old as 36 months. While the team sees a good signal for these older toddlers with adult-directed speech, baby talk is still stronger. The researchers are still examining this signal in children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

Photo of the Brain and Language Lab

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using a device resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses. The team continues to recruit children with autism and process data.

The team is conducting a meta-analysis of early intervention data.

The goal of the Department of Special Education is to be a bridge of expertise for families of children with autism, and for the community. We provide a space for our faculty to conduct basic and applied research. We also prepare our students to create and deliver best practices in a variety of environments: the home, community settings, and as researchers at other institutions. Mark O’Reilly, Chair, Department of Special Education

Basic Research

Baby Talk

Micheal Sandbank, assistant professor, is studying how typically-developing children and those withan illustration of a baby with a thought bubble containing jibberish words developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies may provide researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, eventually leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. They may also inform intervention practices for children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using something resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses.


What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), describes a set of behaviors associated with specific differences in how the brain perceives and processes environmental input.

1 in 68
children have been identified with ASD.

Boys: 1 in 42 | Girls: 1 in 189
It’s around 4.5 times more common among boys than girls.
of children with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability.

Source: Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network


How is autism diagnosed?buckets that say social communication and behavior, with strands of paper in them

Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed by looking at criteria in two categories: Social Communication and Behavior.

What are the major transitions in the life of someone with autism?

1. Diagnosis (Typically age 2-4)

Research has shown that most children are diagnosed with ASD around age 4, though a diagnosis of autism at age 2 can be reliable, valid, and stable.

2. Transition to Schooling (typically age 5-6)

Parents and guardians begin to navigate the school system.

3. Transition to postsecondary life (typically age 18-22)

Early interventions, public awareness and K-12 support have increased educational opportunities for children with autism. But what are the options for life after high school?

An illustration of the progression of a child's age

Applied Research

Bluebonnet Trails

The Department of Special Education collaborates with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services in Georgetown. This collaboration allows doctoral and master’s students to provide family-centered applied behavior analysis (ABA) in home and community settings for children between the ages of 3 and 15 who have a diagnosis of autism and live in Williamson, Travis and surrounding counties.

Programs are embedded into daily routines. Graduate students may accompany a family to the grocery store to work on making a successful shopping trip, or to the library to follow rules in the community related to staying with a parent.

This collaboration offers families interventions that reduce challenging behaviors and increase and improve communication, daily living skills, and abilities related to health and safety. They also increase social opportunities that children and young teens have through their relationships at home and in the community.

The result is long-lasting change. Parents learn to implement strategies rooted in behavioral principles that are supported by applied research in the field of autism, behavior analysis, and special education.

“Families get immediate solutions to challenging behaviors that may be occurring throughout the day. Our children learn skills and behaviors that support higher learning at home, in the community, and at school.” – Suzy Albarran, BCBA Second-year doctoral student, Field Supervisor, Bluebonnet Trails


“Everyone I worked with helped my family so much. My child is now able to take care of his basic needs without my help because of their guidance and interventions.” – Noemi,mother of child with Autism

Next Generation Research

Special Education graduates are leading research at major universities across the country, including:

A U.S. map with a star in texas and numbers throughout the country

  1. Wendy Machalicek, M.Ed, ’04, Ph.D., ’08, University of Oregon—Effective behavior analytic assessment practices and interventions addressing the behavioral and educational needs of young children with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
  2. Mandy Rispoli, M.Ed. ’04, Ph.D. ’09, Purdue—Functional behavior assessment and function-based intervention for challenging behavior in children with ASD and developmental disabilities
  3. Helen Malone, Ph.D. ’05, Ohio State University— Teaching new skills to individuals with severe to profound disabilities and assessment/ treatment of challenging behaviors
  4. Colin Muething, Ph.D. ’16, Emory University— Novel treatments for severe problem behavior, the mechanisms that mediate their effectiveness and reporting large outcomes from these treatments
  5. Tonya Davis, Ph.D. ’08, Baylor University— Treatment of severe challenging behavior among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Beyond Autism

Faculty in the Department of Special Education and its associated centers provide research across the spectrum of learning and behavioral disorders—focused on topics like intensive math and reading interventions, design and evaluation of assistive technology, supporting bilingual students, and the transition to post-school employment for people with disabilities.

Research on learning and behavioral disorders is a growing need. In 2014–15, 13 percent of all public school students—ages 3–21—received services for learning disabilities and/or behavior disorders.  Learning disabilities in particular are the most prevalent; children with learning disabilities represent more than one-third of all school-age students with disabilities.

Schools are serving more students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) than ever before. Early detection and interventions are proven paths to success, but programs designed to help students with ASD often concentrate on providing early intervention. By the time a young adult with ASD faces high school graduation, he or she may have gone years without interventions to prepare for transitioning into the job market or going to college.

Professor Colleen Reutebuch, director of the Reading Institute at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at UT Austin’s College of Education, wanted to investigate the relationship between high school interventions and post-graduation success for students with ASD.  With colleagues from Vanderbilt and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Reutebuch recently published a study that did just that, titled Addressing the Needs of Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Considerations and Complexities for High School Interventions.

Students at a career fair.Working on behalf of The Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (CSESA), Reutebuch and her team analyzed data from 28 focus groups across four states.

“This study was unique in that feedback from stakeholders was used to design and investigate a comprehensive school- and community-based treatment model for adolescents with ASD,” explained Reutebuch. That feedback offered jarring, though not surprising, results. Participants—a representative mix of stakeholders—underlined the inadequacy of current supports for students with autism. Participants agreed that reliable, replicable teaching methods and supports during high school could drastically improve education, employment, and quality of life outcomes after graduation.

But individualized attention is, on its own, not enough. The study also pinpointed a need for education professionals to work together, behind the scenes, as a unified team of well-trained advocates for students with ASD. “Misinformation about ASD and how to address the educational needs and supports for individuals on the spectrum need to be addressed,” notes Reutebuch. “For the project team, this was important because it indicated a need to disseminate information about ASD, and to incorporate capacity building into professional development for educators and staff.”

With support from educators, family, and the community throughout their school years, evidence points to the likelihood that students with ASD are more likely to attend college and pursue meaningful employment.

“High schools can and should play a more significant role in preparing adolescents with ASD for success in post-school settings,” remarked Reutebuch. “Education and services in high school contribute greatly to an individual’s quality of life and, based on our findings, it is clear that there is tremendous room for improvement.”

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

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.

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.