Launchpad Grant Lifts Autism Study

By Andrew Myers

A collaboration between researchers at the School of Education and the Bloomberg School of Public Health has won a Launchpad Grant from Johns Hopkins University’s Alliance for a Healthier World to initiate a study of educational inequities for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“The numbers of those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is rising worldwide and there is a severe shortage of educators specially trained and highly qualified to address their educational needs,” says co-principal investigator on the grant Tamara Marder, an associate professor at the School of Education.

Marder’s co-principal investigator is Elise Pas, associate scientist at the School of Public Health. They will be collaborating with two co-investigators: Gazi Azad, assistant professor at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute; and Li-Ching Lee, associate director of the Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in the School of Public Health.

“Developing better approaches to autism is as much a public health concern as an educational one,” Marder says of the connection between the collaborating schools.

The core issue at hand is the need to impart evidence-based practices to educators charged with providing the support to students with special or even “severe” educational needs. Too often, students with ASD are taught by paraprofessionals or aides without requisite training to ensure an equitable educational experience. The challenge grows more profound in underserved or impoverished schools.

“It is often the most vulnerable students being educated by the least prepared individuals,” Marder says.

In their study, the researchers will gain a deeper knowledge of the challenges these paraprofessionals and their school districts face and formulate evidence-based problem-solving strategies to improve the ability of schools to train high-quality ASD educators.

The first phase of the study is made possible by the Alliance for a Healthier World grant, known as a Launchpad Grant. It is designed to provide the seed money to get important studies off the ground. In this phase, Marder and colleagues will interview 20 paraprofessionals who work with students with ASD to learn more about their needs in the classroom and the training they have received, if any, to prepare them for the challenge.

“We know that there are many evidence-based practices that could help these educators improve outcomes for students, but they are just not getting the most effective training,” Marder explains.

The next step after gathering and analyzing the surveys will be to shape a model of what such a well-rounded training for ASD educators would look like. Future grants, perhaps from one of the Alliance’s “Impact Grants,” will be aimed at helping the researchers further develop their model into a proof of concept that would have to precede a more widespread implementation of the model.

“The important thing, if we’re really going to create equity for students with autism, is to develop a sound model for training the educators,” Marder says. “That starts with talking to people.”