Research Program Feature
“CARES has been providing services to people with ASD and their families for over 10 years, specializing in the identification, development, and dissemination of evidence-based treatments and educational programs.”
Texas has over 7 million children under the age of 18 diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), accounting for more than 10% of all children with ASD in the U.S. The number of children with ASD in Texas public schools has been growing rapidly, which has occasioned notable instructional and financial challenges to the education system. Although effective evidence-based interventions and educational approaches have been developed, there is often a gap between what is achieved in research and what can be done in applied practice. For example, most public-school teachers have minimal, if any, formal training in special education for students with ASD. Considering this situation, the Texas Legislature created the Autism Grant Program (AGP) to help address the needs of school-age children with ASD and their families.
The desire to improve educational outcomes for students with ASD in Texas is exactly what inspired the creation of Texas State University’s Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support (CARES). CARES has been providing services to people with ASD and their families for over 10 years, specializing in the identification, development, and dissemination of evidence-based treatments and educational programs. Specifically, CARES has a three-part mission: (1) provide evidenced-based services to people with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disabilities; (2) train future professionals to provide evidence-based assessment, intervention, and educational services; and (3) conduct meaningful translational research in applied community settings that contributes to the quality of life for individuals with these exceptionalities and their families. CARES’s services positively impact more than 100 people with neurodevelopmental disabilities every year, as well as their teachers and families.
When the Autism Grant Program was made available through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), CARES was among the first university-based ASD clinics to apply for funding. Since 2016, CARES has been awarded autism grant funding from THECB three times, totaling over $700,000. When the current grant is completed, CARES will have trained over 200 teachers and more than 40 parents to increase access to evidence-based educational practices for more than 1,500 students with ASD in Texas public schools.
The current two-year autism grant project (2019 to 2021) provides training to 114 in-service public-school teachers and paraprofessionals in the San Marcos, Round Rock, and Pflugerville school districts. Collectively, these 114 trainees serve 1,025 students with ASD. Dr. Russell Lang, CARES Director, notes: “We emphasize the importance of evidence-based practice in the context of each teacher’s individual needs and treatment goals. By aligning our training with real-life classroom needs, we are more likely to produce sustained improvements in a school’s capacity to serve students with autism. The combination of evidence-based practice, individualized support, and student-focused outcomes is powerful.” For more on the dangers associated with non-evidence-based practices, check out Dr. Lang’s TEDx Talk.
Katy Davenport, clinical services manager, and our staff of licensed behavior analysts, Allyson Lee and Caitlin Murphy, have been with CARES for many years and are responsible for the clinic’s reputation as a provider of high-quality, rigorously implemented services. The relationships this team has developed with surrounding school systems, service agencies, and families of people with ASD have been instrumental in the clinic’s development and have empowered CARES to extend its service area and increase the impact of our services.
The state’s Autism Grant Program is only one of several examples of how CARES has shaped the landscape of ASD services in Texas. CARES has also used grant support to develop online trainings for Texas law enforcement officers who encounter individuals with ASD while on duty and for the Texas Education Agency’s Autism Service Center. In 2021, the CARES team will finalize a training program for Texas Department of Family Protective Services personnel who interact with people with ASD and their families.
Helping bridge the research-to-practice gap with these training programs is one aspect of CARES. But conducting and disseminating original intervention research is also a key part of our mission. Dr. Katy Ledbetter-Cho and Dr. Reem Muharib, Assistant Professors of Special Education, direct research projects in CARES that are embedded into the service and training grants. These research projects help to further refine existing evidence-based practices through replication and extension studies and via evaluations of novel intervention packages and approaches.
As the number of children diagnosed with ASD in Texas continues to increase, the demand for service providers and special educators with expertise in supporting children with ASD also increases. In an effort to contribute to the next generation of service providers, CARES offers a practicum course that empowers graduate students in special education to practice the assessment and intervention procedures covered in their other classes. CARES practicum students work right alongside CARES clinic staff and researchers to provide direct services and co-author research. In this way, CARES is able to blend teaching, research, and service to provide efficient, effective, and sustainable solutions for Texas children with ASD, their families, and their educators.