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Faculty Research Spotlight

Sandra Vanegas, School of Social Work

Autism Program Addresses Disparities by Training Parents


"We set out to adapt and create a parent-mediated intervention program that will be acceptable, feasible, and efficacious for parents and caregivers of young children with ASD.”

Sandra Vanegas

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder often comprised of developmental delays, difficulties in social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Receiving early intervention, including behavioral therapy, can be critical in addressing developmental delays and improving children’s outcomes. However, despite increased awareness of ASD, disparities have been consistently found in screening, diagnosis, and treatment of children from racial/ethnic minority and low-resource communities. Parent-mediated interventions (PMI) may provide a viable option for addressing these disparities.

PMIs involve training parents on ASD specific skills and strategies that are evidence-based and can be implemented in the home. Parents and other caregivers may be more effective than therapists and teachers because they spend more time with the children, therefore delivering higher doses of intervention and generalizing skills across contexts and settings. Although many PMI programs exist for parents of children with ASD, few have focused on the unique needs of families with low resources and few have been created specifically for culturally and linguistically diverse children and families.

Mother and son participating in coaching session with Dr. Vanegas.
Mother and son participating in coaching session with Dr. Vanegas

Our research addresses this critical need. We set out to adapt and create a parent-mediated intervention program that will be acceptable, feasible, and efficacious for parents and caregivers of young children with ASD. The ASD Screening and Parent ENgagement (ASPEN) Intervention Program was adapted from evidence-based practices and created intentionally for culturally diverse families. The program includes 12 educational training sessions for parents. They learn developmental and behavioral strategies to promote their child’s social communication and play skills while addressing challenging behaviors. The ASPEN program is delivered in the family’s home by an allied health graduate student (e.g., social work, communication disorders, education) and peer leader (e.g., parent, sibling, family member of a child with a disability). Currently, the ASPEN program is available in English and Spanish and focuses on children with ASD or developmental delays between 18 months and 6 years of age who reside in low-resource households.

Initial funding from Texas State’s Research Enhancement Program supported a pilot study of the ASPEN program with Spanish-speaking families. Additional funding was received from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) to conduct a randomized trial of the ASPEN program in low-resource communities in the central Texas region (San Marcos, Austin). In addition to this crucial funding and our collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin, our research is supported through relationships we have built with key community agencies to ensure the program aligns with community needs.

Upon completion of the funded project, we hope the ASPEN program can be integrated within existing community agencies to address the needs of children with developmental delays and their families in the central Texas region.