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Student, professors receive $10K grant for autism research in Latino families

Student, professors receive $10K grant for autism research in Latino families

Student, professors receive $10K grant for autism research in Latino families
December 16
22:02 2022

A university doctoral student and two professors will conduct research on childhood autism intervention in Latino families with a $10,000 Lupe Murchison Foundation grant.

Isabel Cunningham, a doctoral student in the department of behavior analysis, will be the primary investigator for the project. College of Health and Public Service professor Shahla Ala’i-Rosales and College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences professor Alicia Re Cruz will serve as primary and secondary advisors, respectively. The research will be for Cunningham’s dissertation.

“I am most excited about being able to hopefully help these families,” Cunningham said. “I am excited about what this could become. My hope is that in the future, this could potentially become a focused service line that I could offer to the Denton community.”

The project is called “Crianza en Armonía” and came from modifying a previous program called Sunny Starts, which helps families with children who have recently been diagnosed with autism learn how to employ naturalistic behavior techniques, according to the group’s proposal.

“Well, there’s a range of ways to help improve behaviors, and some of those take place in the natural environment, like at home […], in the kid’s living room, in the playground,” Ala’i-Rosales said, “The teaching procedures are incorporated into those settings, so in this context that’s what we mean, and for very young children, like really young, 2- and 3-year-olds, that oftentimes is one of the main foci of intervention.”

“Crianza en Armonía” concentrates specifically on Latino families. Re Cruz said the Latino community “has and is at a great disadvantage regarding the autism diagnoses, intervention and services.” When these families can get diagnoses and intervention services, a majority of the time they are based on research from English speakers, according to the proposal.

“We are […] looking at ways that [Sunny Starts] might be adapted to fit the specific needs of families that identify as Latino,” Ala’i-Rosales said.

Ala’i-Rosales said that because autism impacts how a person communicates, how they behave socially and the activities they are interested in, it is “very intertwined with culture.”

“The more we know and can work responsibly across cultures, I think the better our interventions will be, and they will help increase quality-of-life for both the children that we serve […] and their families,” Ala’i-Rosales said.

The project will be split into two parts: focus groups and individual family interviews and then translating the Sunny Starts program.

“Immediately after the focus groups, [we will] just start [to] develop and edit the parent coaching materials based on the feedback that we get from the families,” Cunningham said. “And then immediately start parent coaching from there.”

The team said they hope to start the focus group phase of the project in January or February. Participating families will be recruited via fliers put up around the Dallas-Fort Worth area in places visited by Latino families in need of assistance. These locations include churches and locations that support asylum seekers and those in need of documentation, Cunningham said. The focus groups and family interviews will allow the researchers to assess the Latino community’s needs and see if any themes come up.

“One of the bigger things about the project, and that I hope it will show, is not necessarily a protocol of how to approach working with or how to intervene with Latine families but more show an example of how to […] get to work collaboratively with the families,” Cunningham said.

Ala’i-Rosales and Cunningham’s relationship stretches beyond their time together at the university. Ala’i-Rosales and Cunningham’s mother, who also works in the behavior analysis field, attended graduate school together. As a result, Ala’i-Rosales has known Cunningham since she was a child.

Cunningham said that her mother “is also going to be very much involved in the project.” Cunningham said these relationships contribute to the research team representing the concept of “familismo,” or “the close ties between families.”

“I think part of what that does is by the time we sit down to do the parent coaching or to do the classes and so on, it’s kind of building an environment where hopefully the families will feel more at home,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s interest in behavioral analysis work started when she was attending a preschool at the University of Kansas, where her mother pursued her doctorate at the time. There, Cunningham interacted with disabled individuals at the preschool, which continued in elementary school. By the time she entered university, she knew she wanted to work with individuals with developmental disabilities.

“I was always around [those] individuals, and I never thought about them […] any differently,” Cunningham said. “I just thought about them as more friends to play with. […] The teachers would tell my mom, ‘Your child has a future in special education. We can already tell by the way she interacts with children and wants to include them and play with them.'”

Image source: University of North Texas

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McKinnon Rice

McKinnon Rice

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