May 01, 2013

Autism research seeks to improve communication

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty member is part of an international group to receive recent grant funding for a research project to improve the communication skills of children with autism. 

Ruth Anne Rehfeldt, a professor in the Behavior Analysis and Therapy Program at SIU, teamed with Simon Dymond, psychology department reader at Swansea University in the United Kingdom, and Rob Whelan, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Vermont, to secure $116,090 in Autism Speaks funding.  It is for a project at London’s prestigious TreeHouse School for children with autism. 

The research will explore methods of producing untaught communication skills in nonverbal people with autism and intellectual disabilities.  The use of computer-based communication methods will particularly be important in the research.

“The project will focus on procedures for teaching certain language skill sets that will result in the emergence of untaught skill sets.  Moreover, we will use iPad technology to do this.  Using technology to enhance communication skills in nonverbal individuals is a research priority for many funding agencies,” Rehfeldt said. 

In today’s technologically advanced world, it is becoming increasingly common for nonverbal children with autism to use computer-based alternative communication methods to communicate with their caregivers.  Typically though, the process involves teaching the children each request or communication separately, a time-consuming process. 

The research will explore use of correlating pictures, text and the like to determine if the children can then learn more extensive, emergent language and communication skills.  The goal is facilitating improved communication and behavioral interventions, thus improving the quality of life for nonverbal autistic children and others. 

The project is important to SIU for a number of reasons.  It involves SIU with a project funded by Autism Speaks, a premier advocacy organization supporting scientific research related to autism treatment, Rehfeldt said.  In addition, it brings a collaboration and information exchange between Rehfeldt and SIU graduate students with the TreeHouse School, and opens the door for potential travel to the school by SIU students and faculty.