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Chuck Carney
Director, communications and media relations, IU School of Education

Last modified: Monday, July 16, 2012

IU researcher awarded $3.5M to help improve communication in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder

July 16, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The U.S. Department of Education has awarded nearly $3.5 million to Hannah Schertz, Indiana University School of Education assistant professor of special education, and two colleagues at other universities to study a method aimed at bolstering developmental foundations that support language for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Hannah Schertz

Hannah Schertz

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Schertz is principal investigator on a four-year project to determine the effectiveness of an intervention practice called Joint Attention Mediated Learning, an approach that targets pre-verbal social communication between toddlers younger than 2 1/2 years and their parents.

"The purpose is to begin at a very young age before difficult patterns of social interaction have become set," Schertz said, "and to focus on their greatest area of challenge, social communication." She describes Joint Attention Mediated Learning as an intervention implemented through natural parent-child interaction. "The intervention focuses on foundational pre-verbal competencies that support the natural development of language."

Schertz's co-principal investigators are Samuel Odom, a former IU faculty member, now director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Kathleen Baggett, associate research professor at Juniper Gardens Children's Project within the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at the University of Kansas. Schertz will recruit primary caregivers with toddlers 30 months or younger from diverse socioeconomic, ethnic and racial groups in the Indianapolis area, and the co-investigators will recruit from their North Carolina and Kansas sites.

"This is a significant project that will bring together some of the nation's leading special education researchers from top universities in the field to assess best-practice interventions for autism spectrum disorder," said Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of the IU School of Education. "The selection of this project as one of just 19 proposals nationally to receive major funding from the federal Institute of Education Sciences under the National Center for Special Education Research underscores the quality of the research team and importance of the investigation."

Schertz said she and her colleagues developed the unique Joint Attention Mediated Learning intervention focus through several previous studies. The method promotes three phases of pre-verbal social communication.

In the first phase, intervention helps toddlers look freely and often at their parents' faces. The second stage is designed to promote reciprocal interaction between the toddler and parent.

"The parent engages with the child in simple, repetitive, back-and-forth play," Schertz said. The goal is to help toddlers wait for the parent's turn and to understand that the parent shares their interest but has a different perspective.

The third phase helps the child achieve "joint attention." Schertz says this precursor to language is an important milestone typically achieved by 12 months but one not seen in infants who will go on to receive a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. "Joint attention is sharing interest about something, for example, exchanging looks between an object and the parent while showing social interest, such as by smiling."

At the conclusion of the project, Schertz said she hopes the findings will confirm Joint Attention Mediated Learning to be an effective intervention to help children with autism spectrum disorder learn language in a more natural manner and to make them feel comfortable and competent with social engagement.

"We hope this will translate into better long-term outcomes across the lifespan for children with autism," she said. "We also want to see parents feeling positive about their child's potential and about their ability to positively influence their children's development."