SDSU professor receives grant for autism research


Angelica Wallingford

SDSU assistant professor of special education Jessica Suhrheinrich.

by Angelica Wallingford, Staff Writer

San Diego State assistant professor of special education Jessica Suhrheinrich was named a co-recipient of a $1.4 million grant from the Institute of Educational Science for research on education strategies for students with autism spectrum disorder.

Suhrheinrich and her colleagues at UC Davis’ Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, which include Aubyn Stahmer, Patty Schetter and other affiliated researchers, applied for the project in August 2016. They were informed in late spring that the project would be funded and received the funding in September.

“Collaboration across departments or institutions can often lead to new ideas and innovation,” Suhrheinrich said. “My UC Davis colleague, Aubyn Stahmer, has expertise in ASD and research and community partnerships to increase use of evidence-based practice.”

The three-year grant will utilize an online survey methodology across the state that will allow them to gather data from participants including school district administrators, teachers and principals. The data will include information about student outcomes such as how students are included in the educational environment, student behavioral data and information on the types of training that teachers receive.

Suhrheinrich and her colleagues will also examine a collaboration of various statewide disability organizations called the California Autism Professional Training and Information Network, or CAPTAIN.

“One of the bigger goals of this project is if we can identify what’s effective about interagency collaboration within the state of California and the CAPTAIN collaborative,” Suhrheinrich said. “Then it would allow us a protocol or some standards for replication in other states or across other types of disability needs.”

Suhrheinrich said her interest in autism research started when she was a psychology student at Earlham College, where she worked clinically with a family who had a son who was diagnosed with autism. She worked with several other children through college and eventually taught elementary school for a couple of years. It wasn’t until she started looking toward grad school that she wanted to bring her experiences together.

“That really piqued my interest in autism spectrum disorder and how I could learn more about the experience of individuals with autism and their families and how I could work toward really making a difference in the way their base provided,” Suhrheinrich said.

SDSU Special Education Professor Bonnie Kraemer, one of Suhrheinrich’s colleagues, said she has been involved with autism research for 15 years and was the recipient of a number of both foundation and federal grants.

“I hope that it increases the use of evidence-based practices in all schools,” Kraemer said. “All of the work has had been shown to be effective in clinical settings.”

Pamela Starr, director of Student Disability Services, says that SDSU works with each student with an autism spectrum disorder individually to ensure that each student gets what they need to have a “level playing field and access to their education.”

She said that just because one method worked for one individual with ASD, it won’t necessarily work for others and that each individual has their own specific needs. General accommodations can range from have a note taker present in class to possibly providing a smaller audience for presentations

“Another opportunity would be to empower the individual with ASD to educate others about some of the characteristics of their ASD, to assist in destigmatizing some of the characteristics and your behaviors which others may not understand,” Starr said.

Suhrheinrich said she believes that a factor in gaining the federal funding came, in part, to autism being considered a public health concern. This is because there is not much known about the disability including what causes it, how to treat it, how it affects the individual and how different services can respond in comprehensive ways.

Suhrheinrich said one of the bigger goals of the project is to see what is effective about interagency collaborations within California and the CAPTAIN collaborative and hopefully apply it nationwide.

“It would allow us a protocol or some standards for replication in other states or across other types of disability needs,” Suhrheinrich said. “So, not just focused on autism or not just in the state of California but that perhaps this model of interagency collaboration to increase the use of evidence-based practices could be used more broadly.”