‘Opportunity’ research will boost interventions for children with autism

Fresh off winning a highly competitive seed grant from the University of Florida’s Office of Research, UF College of Education professor Maureen Conroy aims to fill a critical gap in […]

Fresh off winning a highly competitive seed grant from the University of Florida’s Office of Research, UF College of Education professor Maureen Conroy aims to fill a critical gap in intervention options addressing core social and communication learning deficits in children with autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, a complex, neurological developmental disorder that affects more than 240,000 American children and young adults.

Although no two people with autism will have exactly the same symptoms, people with the disorder typically have difficulty communicating with others and are socially awkward or prefer to stay to themselves.

“Social skill deficits are the most distinguishable feature of children with autism, but little research has been conducted to explain the intentions behind occasional displays of positive social behavior,” Conroy said. “Determining the primary reasons these children engage in positive or ‘prosocial’ behavior—perhaps to get attention, get their way or escape an uncomfortable situation—is a new strategy that showed promise in an earlier study. Now we can use this information to design and test tailored interventions for improving a child’s communication and social skills.”

Principal investigator Conroy, a professor of special education and early childhood studies, and co-PI Krestin Radonovich, a UF pediatric neuropsychologist, have received a Research Opportunity Fund (ROF) grant from UF worth more than $93,000 for their two-year study. Sixty children with ASD between 3 and 10 years old are being recruited from Alachua County to participate.

“Autism is a vital national health concern,” said Conroy, who also is associate director of UF’s Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies. “It’s estimated that ASD occurs in one of every 88 children. What’s most alarming is that the prevalence rate today is 10 times higher than it was in the 1980s. The cost impact on our society is estimated as high as $90 billion annually.

“In our research, we will implement function-based interventions to promote higher rates of positive social interactions in children with ASD, which should improve their long-term outcomes.”

Conroy’s project is one of 18 ROF grants awarded this year by UF’s research office. The annual seed grants provide funding for new and particularly promising research proposals that are multi-disciplinary and are expected to attract additional external funding from major funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. Conroy also was awarded a seed grant in 2005.

Other past grant recipients from the College of Education include Linda Lombardino (2011), Ann Daunic (2009), Holly Lane and Luis Ponjuan (both 2008), and Jennifer Asmus (2002).

“Research Opportunity Fund grants historically go to UF faculty researchers in the technical fields such as medicine and engineering,” said Thomasenia Adams, associate dean for research, faculty development and graduation education, “so it is notable to have several multidisciplinary research teams from the College of Education receive this highly competitive award over the past several years.”

Conroy has extensive experience in conducting early intervention research with children who are at risk for or have social and behavioral disabilities, including children with autism spectrum disorders. She is principal investigator on an Institute of Educational Sciences grant worth $4 million, investigating the efficacy of a classroom-based intervention model aimed at reducing significant behavior problems in pre-kindergarten children at risk for learning and behavioral difficulties.


   SOURCE: Maureen Conroy, professor in special education and early childhood studies, UF College of Education, mconroy@coe.ufl.edu; 352-273-4382

   WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education; llansford@coe.ufl.edu; 352-273-4137