Schertz awarded grant to improve outcomes for toddlers with autism

A new $3.8 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) will fund a project led by Hannah Schertz, professor of special education, to address the need for effective early intervention for toddlers with autism. 

The project, “Building Interactive Social Communication (BISC) for Toddlers with Autism in Community-Based Early Intervention Systems,” is in collaboration with the IU Center for Evaluation, Policy and Research (CEPR). The five-year study will examine the efficacy of an intervention framework that helps early intervention providers (EIPs) support families of toddlers with autism. The framework, also known as BISC, supports parent-mediated intervention with children that is delivered to families in person or virtually, and naturally integrates families' language and cultural preferences. 

“Early signs of autism begin to emerge around 18 months in the form of difficulty with social communication. This early toddler period is a critical time in which neurological development is most malleable and amenable to change,” Schertz said. “Research has shown that children who acquire foundations of social communication before learning to talk achieve better long-term language outcomes and can more easily navigate the social world.”

This early toddler period is a critical time in which neurological development is most malleable and amenable to change.

Hannah Schertz

During the study, early intervention professionals are guided to “mediate” parent learning, and parents in turn mediate toddler learning throughout natural everyday routines and play-oriented interactions. Rather than presenting parents with predetermined intervention strategies, professionals promote parents’ active engagement in the learning process. Parents are also introduced to key concepts related to targeted child social outcomes and mediational practices aimed at achieving those outcomes. According to Schertz, this conceptual grounding enables parents to flexibly translate learned concepts into parent-child interactions in ways that mesh with their own traditions, routines, and interests. 

The research is critical given the continued increase in children being diagnosed with autism. This intervention is notable given its focus on the emerging signs of autism during the developmentally malleable toddler period.  

“Early intervention is effective when the social challenge for toddlers is eased as they begin to recognize the communication partner as someone whose perspectives are different from their own but with whom they can share common interests. They have learned to reach outside their own world to share attention with a partner about objects or events,” Schertz explained.

As Principal Investigator, Schertz will lead the study, which includes recruiting 165 EIPs and implementing BISC in families’ homes in rural, suburban and urban locations across multiple states, including Indiana. Co-PI Patricia Muller, Director of CEPR, will lead a randomized controlled trial study (RCT) to determine BISC’s impact on key outcomes, as well as a cost-effectiveness study. Co-PI Jessica Lester, Professor of Counseling and Educational Psychology will oversee a parallel qualitative investigation of parent-child interactions using conversation analysis to explore underlying influences on outcomes.

“This project will measure the effectiveness of a unique approach to helping community-based professionals empower parents of toddlers with autism with the knowledge and confidence to directly and naturally address the core autism challenge at an early juncture when learning is most adaptable,” Schertz added. “By centering parents as leaders in this venture, the intervention’s effects will extend throughout the child’s daily experiences and into the future.”

The ultimate outcome of the study is to determine the impact and effectiveness of this 20-week early intervention, an outcome with direct relevance to the policies and practices of state and national practitioners.