Language intervention grants target children with autism

Peabody professors Paul Yoder and Ann Kaiser are recipients of new grants from the National Institutes of Health Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE). Yoder and Kaiser of Vanderbilt have received ACE grants to study language interventions for young children.

“Early intervention with autism is one of the big success stories,” said Paul Yoder, professor of special education. “Not to minimize autism’s effect on families, but it’s not the long-term bad news that it used to be. Newer treatment models have shown to be very effective. We’ll be testing the relative effectiveness of two of these models.

Yoder leads the Nashville site in an ACE treatment network that will conduct a randomized controlled clinical trial to ascertain the effects of intensity and delivery style on the developmental progress of toddlers with ASD.

All participants in Yoder’s study will be younger than 27 months, an age at which most children with autism are not speaking at all. Nashville’s part of the project will be carried out at Ft. Campbell, Ky., which has the Army’s fourth-largest Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). EFMP furnishes treatment, therapy, education, training, or counseling to Army family members with physical, emotional, developmental or intellectual disorders.

“We’ll have four groups of children,” Yoder said. “These four groups will differ by the teaching method used and the length of the teaching sessions per day. We want to match the method and amount of teaching to children’s characteristics measured before early intervention beings.

“If we can show that one method works better than another and it can be implemented within a particular base, this grant can have major policy implications and perhaps show the U.S. government that this method should be applied throughout the Army.”

Ann Kaiser, Susan W. Gray Professor of Education and Human Development, is involved in a four-city study that will compare two types of intensive, daily instruction for children with ASD who use only limited verbal communication. Even after early language-skills training, about a third of school-aged children with ASD remain minimally verbal.

“We are working with 5- to 8-year-olds who have less than 20 words,” Kaiser said. “The goal is to get them to use language in a social, communicative way. Many of them are incredibly smart, and we don’t know why they don’t have language.”

The study examines two established approaches to teaching children who are minimally verbal. The first intervention, Discrete Trial Training (DTT), uses behavioral teaching methods to directly instruct children in the core skills needed for communication. The second intervention blends naturalistic language teaching procedures with strategies to teach joint attention, symbolic play and emotion regulation. The intervention focuses on social and attentional foundations for communication as well as teaching spoken words.

“The goal is to get them to use language in a social, communicative way.”

— Ann Kaiser

“I’m excited about the design of the study,” Kaiser says. “Kids get randomly assigned to one of the two approaches, and their progress is monitored. After 24 sessions, if a child is responding, we continue the treatment he is in and add parent training. If a child is a slow responder, we begin a blended treatment that incorporates components of the other teaching method. Each child gets treatment, and it’s customized for each based on his response to it.”

By the end of the five-year study, Kaiser believes her team will have an effective treatment model for minimally verbal children, they’ll understand which model works best for each type of child, and they’ll have an early-read system that indicates effectiveness of treatment and provides a strategy for adjusting the treatment to maximize its effectiveness.