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Autism Clearinghouse Raising Money To Expand Research

Image of study assessment for young kid
Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities

There's a lot of noise on the Internet about how to support and teach children with Autism. The National Clearinghouse for Autism Evidence and Practice has been working to cut through it by offering in-depth analysis of reliable research for teachers and families.The clearinghouse is raising money to expand its research and offer more input, according to research scientist Kara Hume.

"These are the practices that we know work for different age groups to target different skills,” Hume said. “We want to keep that going."

The clearinghouse has created Autism Focused Intervention and Resource Modules (AFIRM). The free web program offers 27 evidence-based practices. Teachers and family members of kids on the autism spectrum have logged in 4 million times over the past three years to get tips on how to help these children who often have difficulty communicating with others.

Interventions include using videos to model social skills, and peer-mediated groups to help a student learn social cues and conversation scripts.

Former elementary school teacher Krista Zelt Lee said she found the modules helpful in supporting kids on the spectrum at her school.

"It helps not only teachers understand and be able to teach appropriate skills to their students, but also kids' parents,” Lee said. “We can take the same courses online and work with the teachers alongside them so that we're doing the same thing."

Lee said the resources also helped her own son, who's autistic. Her 11-year-old had serious trouble approaching and interacting with his peers in an appropriate way. Lee said he has benefitted from a peer-mediated instruction and intervention group recommended by the resource modules. She said it evolved into a group her son could sit with at lunch every day, and then real friendships.

"My child had his first sleep over the other day,” Lee said. “Some of these kids are actually now his true friends outside of school. So, it's just really cool that it's gone from school to home."

The clearinghouse is part of UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute as well as the University's Autism Research Center. This project, however, needs to raise its own money and educational grant funding can be hard to come by.

The clearinghouse analyzed 30,000 studied to come up with the original 27 evidence-based practices. Now, Hume said it needs $100,000 to analyze 30,000 more, and post new modules on the AFIRM site.

"So we want to identify, what are the newest practices? What are making the biggest changes right now? How can we target mental health?” she said. “That was something we weren't researching. How can we target very young children on the spectrum? That was something we didn't know much about in our last review."

Hume adds that they hope to identify helpful resources and interventions for adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum. She said she hopes new modules will be available to the public early next year.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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