Working on opposite sides of the globe, two professors and their students join forces to improve lives for people with autism.
More than 20 years ago, before the Internet and email, special-education researcher Mark O’Reilly received a letter in his native Ireland. The dispatch marked the beginning of a long, fruitful professional relationship, one that has contributed greatly to the adoption of innovative strategies to help the millions of children and families struggling with the spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders collectively known as autism.
Jeff Sigafoos, at the time a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, had come across a reference to one of O’Reilly’s papers, one he could not access through his university’s library. “So I wrote to Mark and asked for a reprint,” says Sigafoos. As it turned out, O’Reilly’s wife had worked with Sigafoos previously in Minnesota.
Fast-forward to 2001, when Sigafoos joined UT’s College of Education to establish a master’s and Ph.D. program in autism studies. Increased funding allowed for the hiring of another professor, and O’Reilly joined his colleague at UT. Though Sigafoos moved to New Zealand in 2005, O’Reilly now chairs the Department of Special Education, where he holds the Audrey Rogers Myers Centennial Professorship in Education — and where the professors’ cooperative research and teaching continue today.
Partnerships like this one can be incredibly valuable for students and for an entire field of study. For instance, when investigating how best to treat problem behaviors associated with developmental disabilities, Sigafoos notes that assessment and intervention are often viewed as somewhat separate activities. O’Reilly has been a leader in integrating the two, however, and Sigafoos extended his ideas to examine whether teaching a person better communication skills could help. “We then started to look at other issues,” he says, “such as teaching social skills and using technology to educate people.”
“We have different expertise that can overlap,” says O’Reilly. “It’s a nice meld, and students benefit from that.”
A combined cohort of about 10 doctoral students is enrolled each year in the special education programs at UT and at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where Sigafoos is a professor. Like O’Reilly and Sigafoos, the students communicate across oceans via telephone, e-mail, and Skype, and present their findings through video links and the occasional international trip. They are able to share and compare teaching and research insights as well as practical knowledge they gain in their hands-on, in-home work with families.
“The international collaborations are unique in that they allow students to work not only with leaders in the fields of autism and special education, but to work with leaders within our specific subsets or research areas,” says recent graduate Cindy Gevarter, PhD ’15, now an assistant professor and program coordinator of applied behavior analysis at Manhattanville College in New York. She has explored ways to increase the vocalizations of individuals with autism through assistive technology such as speech-generating devices.
“Dr. Sigafoos’ team researches augmentative and alternative communication systems, as I do,” Gevarter says. “Knowing what questions they are asking and exploring helped me think about where my own research should be going next.”
In preparing students for careers in clinical settings and in academia, the benefits of collaborations like this can’t be overstated, Sigafoos says.
“Students gain ongoing feedback at every stage of the study, from conceptualization to practical aspects of collecting the data to the write-up stage, which makes a high-quality project more likely. They also get the opportunity to receive multiple perspectives and learn from each other.”
Over the years, the schools’ shared research and training have had a widespread impact. Many of the assessment and intervention strategies they have researched — such as identifying why a child might be engaging in challenging behaviors and then tailoring an improvement strategy for him and his family — are now widely used by those who work with people with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Graduates of both programs have gone on to hold faculty positions at many other universities, where they can further share their specialized knowledge. “Students keep the international relationships they’ve made throughout their careers,” says O’Reilly. “It makes the world a smaller place.”
Small world or not, when an estimated 1 percent of the population worldwide has an autism-spectrum disorder, the advances these faculty and students are making have truly world-changing significance.
Photos by Christina Murrey
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