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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.

Inside the light room at the College of EducationWe all know that students need math support, but sometimes teachers need new ways to support their students’ learning. In her video studio in the College of Education, Sarah Powell creates short videos for YouTube that offer tools and strategies on a variety of math topics—from solving equations to partial products multiplication. The clips provide research-based techniques and strategies that are easy for teachers to transfer to the classroom.

The videos are part of Project STAIR—Supporting Teaching of Algebra: Individual Readiness—and they offer quick and easy-to-understand tutorials, whether you’re a new teacher or a classroom veteran—or a parent looking for help with your student’s homework.

Powell is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education. Her research interests include developing and testing interventions for students with mathematics difficulties. Project STAIR is a research project collaboration among the University of Missouri, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas at Austin.


Join Special Education Clinical Assistant Professor Katie Tackett for this Discovery Minute as she describes how applying universal design principles to her classroom benefits all her students, whether or not they have an identified disability.

Tackett is the 2016-17 recipient of the Elizabeth Shatto Massey Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. The Massey Award recognizes a “teacher of teachers,” who inspires and prepares future elementary and secondary teachers.

Discovery Minute is a video series that highlights and introduces various topics that are researched by faculty at the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Our faculty explore topics that have a direct impact on education, policy, health, and our community.

When Special Education doctoral student Lisa Didion was a special education teacher for students with various disabilities in Missouri, she saw her classroom as “a never-ending research experiment.” She enthusiastically talks about her attempts to advance her students to an academic and behavioral level on track with their typically-developing peers.

Didion had already earned a master’s degree in Special Education from Vanderbilt University, with a major in behavior disorders, where she developed a penchant for collecting meaningful data on students’ academic progress and behavioral skills. She often used her interest in data collection as a way of motivating herself.

“One day, on my afternoon run, I began thinking about how my own exercise data motivates me to improve my performance,” she says. She thought collecting that kind of data might be motivational for her students too. “I began teaching my students about data by sharing my own. It was important to illustrate for my students that performance can increase and decrease, and to model for them the appropriate emotional responses to these changes. My main objective was to teach the importance of tracking data to monitor progress.”

Didion paired her teaching of data and its relevance to a science unit her class was doing on landforms. “The intervention taught students about their own data, visualized through a line graph, and explained like climbing a mountain,” she says.

And with that, Data Mountain was born.

“It was my biggest ‘Aha!’ teaching moment,” she says. “I created a bulletin board with construction paper and painters’ tape. My students’ faces on cartoon hikers started their ascent of Data Mountain, climbing a peak each time they reached a goal.” Each Friday, she conferenced individually with students to share their academic and behavioral data. “They connected that their behavior while completing a task influenced their performance, illustrated through their data. They began to improve more quickly on weekly progress monitoring assessments.  Every year after, for a range of data types, most students showed progress when I used Data Mountain.”

An upper-elementary teacher saw the influence Data Mountain had on Didion’s students and began using the procedure for reading fluency in her classroom, with similar results. The idea began to spread.

In fact, Data Mountain became influential throughout the school district and Didion’s innovative teaching earned her Teacher of the Year.

Jessica Toste and her student Lisa Didion

Lisa Didion and Jessica Toste

Didion realized that there was not much written in the education literature on this type of intervention. Some of the research she did find was written by Jessica Toste, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, whose specializes in motivation research related to students with disabilities. Didion’s desire to pursue a doctorate in the subject led her to the College of Education to study with Toste, who has become her advisor.

Together, Didion and Toste have been conducting a pilot project using Data Mountain as a reading fluency intervention with third-grade students in the Austin area.  Says Toste, “Through this type of work, we hope to explore ways to intensify interventions. We want students to become more autonomous and engaged in their learning, so that they can fully benefit from instruction. This pilot study is a first step. Lisa is passionate about teachers and students using data in meaningful ways, and it has been exciting to empirically test an intervention that organically grew from her teaching practice.”


They hope to scale up to a larger investigation, and Didion intends to publish the research, present at conferences, and conduct workshops with teachers to share their methods.

“My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.”

“When I began to pursue my doctorate, my primary goal was to explore the interventions that were inspired by my students. My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.  I am so grateful that Dr. Toste supports me in this endeavor, challenges me to continue to ask questions as I dive further into the research, and helps me to take full advantage of the opportunities here.”



Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio are deaf. They have lived the experience—as students and professionals—of working with accommodations and breaking down barriers. Their passion for changing the paradigm of the educational experience in the U.S. for deaf individuals has influenced their work as researchers.

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Cawthon is the director of a new center in the College of Education that has received a $20 million, five-year grant from the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). It is one of the largest grants awarded by the DOE to support technical assistance and professional development in education.

The center’s goal is to help change the climate, culture and expectations for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level”

“We want people who are deaf or hard of hearing to have access to more robust services—services that serve the whole person, and that have been, and that have been proven effective. We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level,” says Cawthon, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and an Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellow in Education.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Institute, which will open in January, will be housed in the College’s Meadows Center’s infrastructure and nationally recognized expertise in translating research into practice.

“Dr. Cawthon will lead a strong collaborative national team of researchers and practitioners. The project is well-positioned to draw upon extensive experience, data-driven research, and scholarship in the field,” says College of Education Dean Manuel J. Justiz.

The center will support colleges and universities that work with organizations and public agencies across the nation to more effectively address postsecondary, vocational, technical, continuing, and adult educational needs of deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“Ultimately, we seek to change the culture surrounding postsecondary outcomes for deaf individuals and create conditions for success in a way that recognizes and honors their experiences, perspectives, and abilities,” says Garberoglio, project Manager at the Meadows Center and a co-principal investigator on the team.

Currently, best practices for supporting educational outcomes after high school for deaf and hard of hearing individuals have not been studied rigorously or shared broadly, which means that uneven outcomes are common. The new center aims to change that.

The center’s researchers want to increase admittance to, persistence in and completion of college or post-secondary training without remedial coursework, as well as institutional capacity to implement evidence-based practices and strategies. The team also wants to increase the body of knowledge on ways to use technology to promote access and provide accommodations.

Says Cawthon, “I’m proud that we’re bringing together teams of people from education, business, and community organizations, as well as families, in an innovative and useful effort. We want to improve the research and find better ways for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing to overcome challenges and be successful.”

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Portrait of Brandy Wyndham and Christie Peterson

Brandy Windham, MEd ’14 and Christie Layton Peterson, BS ’05, MEd ’08

Two College of Education Alumni Collaborate to Help Children with Autism Succeed

When 2-year-old Marie* (a pseudonym for the child) came to Building BLOCS, the only word she could say was ‘pop.’ After five years, Marie, who was born with autism, now attends a typical second-grade classroom and doesn’t need extra support. Her remarkable success is due in large part to of the therapies provided at Building BLOCS (behavior and language opportunities for communication and social skills), an early intervention and speech therapy program for children with autism in Austin.

In 2010, when Texas College of Education Special Education alumni Christie Layton Petersen, B.S. ’05, M.Ed. ‘08, and Brandy Windham, M.Ed. ’14, opened Building BLOCS, they had no idea how successful they would become.

Unlikely Entrepreneurs

The two met while working in special education for the Pflugerville Independent School District, which, like many districts in Texas and across the country, was experiencing budget cuts that affected services for students. Though they had no previous thoughts about becoming entrepreneurs, “we could see what was coming,” says Windham, “and it was discouraging. So we would dream about what we would do if we had our own center and could do things for children the way we thought they should be done. For example, in the school system we had up to 12 students on our caseloads. Here, we cap it at five per therapist.”

Three young children play with tubes while their teacher looks on.Today, their interdisciplinary approach helps children with autism learn the communication, behavioral, and social skills necessary to reach their full potential and has helped Building BLOCS grow to 45 clients and 17 employees. Petersen earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education at UT, with a focus on autism and developmental disabilities, and became a behavior analyst in 2009. Windham majored in English and earned a master’s in communication sciences and disorders at UT before returning to earn a master’s in autism and developmental disabilities in 2012, which allowed her to work as both a speech pathologist and as a behavior analyst. The combination of their backgrounds helps them provide a unique approach to helping their young clients.

Parents of children with autism often seek both applied behavior analysis (ABA) and speech therapy for their children because behavior issues and language issues commonly coexist in those with the neurodevelopmental disorder. Most times, these therapies are sepa
rate and distinct. But Windham and Petersen combined the two. “They complement each other,” says Windham. She and Petersen collaborate on goals and methods that address challenging behaviors, which often arise because of children’s struggles to communicate. That interdisciplinary approach makes Building BLOCS unique.

“Our aim is for independent living—the ability for the kids to attend daycare and school settings without extra support,” says Petersen. Clients typically spend about three to four years with them and receive 10-20 hours of therapy a week, whereas kids in schools may receive 30 minutes of speech therapy a week, with direct instruction for about 15-30 minutes a day in the classroom.

“We knew we wanted to create a group-based, play-based system, so the kids could be with their peers. What we did was, effectively, a randomized control. We got to control the environment, number of assistants, and so on as compared to other therapy. Ours is naturalistic and that makes it more effective.”

The Value of Early Intervention

young children listen to their teacher.Building BLOCS specializes in early intervention. Children arrive as young as 18 months. “We follow the Early Start Denver Model for young children with autism,” says Petersen.

“We’d read about early intervention,” says Windham, “but the speed of learning in this controlled environment, in this ideal setting, was surprising. These kids made a lot of progress. Typically within the school system we’d create goals for students that we believed were achievable in a year. Here, we can give them goals they can reach within three months because they can do so much in a shorter period of time in this setting.”

Therapy at Building BLOCS isn’t just highly effective—it’s fun. “You have to be really understanding of the kids’ behavior,” says Petersen. “You have to be fun and grab the child’s attention.”

Adds Petersen, “You’re competing with objects that kids with autism are more focused on, so you have to be engaging and flexible because days change on a dime. We do lots of social, creative, fun stuff. One of our favorite things to do is Soul Train dance line moves because they are imitative of others’ movements. The kids are having a really fun childhood. We haven’t robbed them of that.”

Continued Ties with Special Education Department

A young girl colors while her teacher looks on.Windham and Petersen say that Department Chair Mark O’Reilly was helpful in offering support for their endeavor. “We met with him frequently and he encouraged us,” says Windham. And they continue a relationship with the department. “Associate Professor Terry Falcomata has done research with us, and his Ph.D. students come to our facility as well,” she says.

Building BLOCS also offers a practicum placement to special education master’s students specializing in early childhood and autism or developmental or high-incidence disabilities.

“That’s been great for us,” says Windham. “We get smart and skilled people. We give them experience, and they keep us up on the research, which keeps our business in line with the field and best practices. We’ve hired most of our therapists from the programs. They bring us new energy and it re-sparks our desire to learn and enthusiasm for the rest of our employees.”

Making a Difference in the Lives of Children and Their Families

A young girl throws leaves into the air while her teacher looks on.Earlier this year, the mother of ‘Marie,’ who happens to be Building BLOCS’ first client, published a book about her family’s experience, No Map to This Country: One Family’s Journey through Autism. Several children in the family have autism, and the book highlights the therapies used at Building BLOCS. “When ‘Marie’ came in” says Petersen, “she blew bubbles, scattered toys, cried when asked to do something, and didn’t take turns. Now she’s in 2nd grade in a charter school, in a typical classroom, not needing additional support.”

Petersen and Windham smile broadly when recounting Marie’s story. It’s exactly the kind of success they hope for all of the children they serve.

Photos by Christina S. Murrey

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

Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk Executive Director Sharon Vaughn joined a panel of national experts at the White House on November 17 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in Washington, D.C.

Sharon Vaughn at the White House

Vaughn’s presentation on successful research-based interventions for literacy (which can be viewed at this link) took place at the U.S. Department of Education’s Barnard Auditorium. Joining her on the panel were distinguished researchers from across the nation, including Sue Swenson (family engagement), Lynn Fuchs (mathematics), Rob Horner (school climate/social and behavior), Lise Fox (early childhood), Michael Wehmeyer (inclusion), Lisa Dieker (teacher training), and David Test (secondary/transition).

According to the Department of Education, “When IDEA was enacted in 1975, America pledged to provide and ensure that children with disabilities have opportunities to develop their talents and contribute to their communities. That pledge endures today and IDEA continues to provide not only access to the school house, to assessment, and to the general curriculum, but the full promise of inclusion, equity, and opportunity.”