The department of psychology at Rowan University was recently awarded a two-year grant totaling $398,050.

This grant, which was awarded to Dr. Mary Lou Kerwin, Department Head of Psychology, was given by the New Jersey Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism.

The grant will provide funding for a research project evaluating two treatments for Applied Behavior Analysis with autism undertaken by Kerwin, Dr. Michelle Ennis Soreth, a faculty member in psychology, four psychology graduate students, and seven undergraduate students.  

The research will use Sequential and Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART) research methodology. This technique is new and different from traditional research techniques, in that there is no control group. This SMART design will be used to evaluate 36 two to six-year-old children with autism, in a research setting at Rowan University’s Center for Applied Behavior Analysis, located in Robinson Hall.

The research will evaluate the effectiveness of the two treatments on the young children. The first method, called discrete trial training, takes a more structured child and therapist approach, where a therapist will direct a child toward a certain behavior and evaluate how well the child responds to that instruction.

“The second verbal treatment takes a more naturalistic approach,” Kerwin said. “This will study the basic principles of verbal behavior. This style is more child-led, where the therapist will observe which behaviors motivate a child.”

The 36 children will be recruited locally for the project. The research period will take place over 16 weeks, where children will participate in three 90-minute periods per week. Families of the children will be informed of the research taking place and notified of the results.

“It’s important to remember this is strictly a research study, not a clinical service,” Kerwin said. “However, if a certain treatment works for a child, his/her family can opt for services.”

The Department of Psychology has received several autism grants in the past, and this grant will help the department discover what specifically works for the treatment of autism for certain children.

“This grant is another block to us building expertise on the treatment of autism,” Kerwin said. “It also involves students and is helpful in providing them with the necessary skills for future careers in health care.”

Jackie Eggink, a 26-year-old in her second year in the M.A. in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program and coordinator of the research project, will oversee the daily processes of the project and act as a therapist.

“I’m excited to do this research, as autism is a growing concern.” Eggink said. “It’s important to manage behaviors and help skill acquisition in children early.”

The research project will be completed by three graduate therapists, the remaining eight undergraduate students will act as research assistants, who will help analyze and evaluate the results of the treatments.

Lauren Heller, a 23-year-old second year ABA graduate student says she is excited for the research.

“I am interested in learning about any new detail possible about autism and I love learning about specific behaviors children have with autism,” Heller said.

Both Heller and Eggink have future goals of becoming Board Certified Behavior Analysts, saying this research is a great experience in preparing each of them for that.

“Treating these children will be very exciting,” Heller said. “I wouldn’t be getting these experiences anywhere else.”

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