UH College of Education Professors Receive Grant to Help Students with Autism Succeed in School - University of Houston
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UH College of Education Professors Receive Grant to Help Students with Autism Succeed in School

Associate Professor Milena Keller-Margulis

Posted May 29, 2019 – Researchers from the University of Houston’s school psychology program have received a national grant for a pioneering project to develop effective methods to measure the academic skills of students with autism spectrum disorder.

The study has the potential to help improve the academic performance of this special population, giving educators and psychologists better tools to track their progress. None of the standard assessments used today are designed specifically for students with autism.

“The development of basic academic skills is a right,” said Milena Keller-Margulis, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Psychological, Health, and Learning Sciences. “Basic skills in reading, writing and math are not only a requirement for success in school but also for success in life. We need to focus on the development of these skills in students with ASD.”

Keller-Margulis has teamed with Sarah Mire, assistant professor and associate chair of PHLS, on the project. The pair was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, which exclusively funds education research.

Assistant Professor Sarah Mire

While psychologists and educators have a variety of tools to measure students’ academic development, most tests are typically long and require attention and cognitive flexibility that may be difficult for students with autism.

The UH researchers plan to study whether a type of assessment, known as curriculum-based measurement, works well with students with autism or could be adapted to work better. CBM involves quick but effective checks, such as counting how many words a student can read correctly in a minute in a grade-appropriate passage.

The team plans to look at factors such as the content of the reading passage – does the topic matter, for example? – or the amount of time a student has to consider a writing prompt.

The collaboration between the two school psychology professors is a natural extension of their work. Keller-Margulis specializes in curriculum-based measurement while Mire focuses on children and families impacted by autism. Together, their lab, Academic Skills Development for Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD4ASD, is dedicated to better serving this special population.

An estimated 1 in 59 people in the U.S. have autism.

“A vast majority of kids on the autism spectrum, they’re much more capable than might be easily recognized,” Mire said. “They can learn basic academic skills at the very least. But we cannot teach them effectively if we don’t know where they are skills-wise.

“These are a unique and diverse group of kids. They have both the right and the capability to learn.”

–By Daniel Huron