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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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In the early years, parents may be best suited to provide intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders. (Stock image) In the early years, parents may be best suited to provide intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders. (Stock image)

SDSU Researcher Leads $3.3 Million Autism Intervention Study

Sarah Rieth will test the efficacy of parent coaching intervention for toddlers.
By Michael Klitzing

Research shows early intervention can make an enormous difference in the development of children with autism spectrum disorders. Sarah Rieth, assistant professor in child and family development at San Diego State University, is working to ensure parents of toddlers have the tools they need to provide effective interventions themselves.

Rieth — an expert in early autism intervention — recently received a $3.3 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to research the efficacy of Project ImPACT for Toddlers. This naturalistic intervention, initially developed by autism experts Brooke Ingersoll and Anna Dvortcsak, was adapted specifically for toddlers through more than a decade of work by the BRIDGE Collaborative — a partnership of 15 service providers, funding agency representatives, parents and researchers (including Rieth) from multiple institutions.

“Development builds on itself — you need the earlier skills to develop the later skills,” Rieth said. “If the earlier skills are missing, that's a problem that only compounds later in life. The earlier we can start supporting a child and a family, the better chance we have of getting them where they want to be.”
Coaching the parents

What’s interesting is that rather than holding an intervention geared toward the child, Project ImPACT (Improving Parents As Communication Teachers) is a parent coaching intervention. It teaches parents best practices for engaging with their children, such as following the child's interests, having clear consequences, offering clear opportunities to respond and imitating the child. When done well, Rieth said, Project ImPACT looks like to the untrained eye like the parent is simply playing with their child.
For the first three years after birth, “the parent is the child's primary point of contact with the world,” Rieth said. “What an interventionist could do with a child really pales in comparison to what a parent could do. We're not trying to teach parenting skills, it's just trying to help them shift how they interact with the child to better support their social communication skills given what we know about autism.”
The IES grant will enable Rieth to research Project ImPACT for Toddlers over the next four years. Working with University of California, Davis professor Aubyn Stahmer and early intervention providers, she plans to recruit 230 families of children with autism in San Diego and Sacramento into the study.
Autism education leadership

Rieth, who started with the BRIDGE Collaborative when she was a research assistant at the University of California, San Diego, was involved in the development of Project ImPACT for Toddlers every step of the way. She laughs as she calls herself “mostly terrified” to now be spearheading this study into its efficacy.
Rieth’s leadership is emblematic of SDSU’s growing prominence in autism education research. Along with assistant professors Rachel Haine-Schlagel, Kelsey Dickson and Jessica Suhrheinrich, she is one of four SDSU faculty investigators at the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center (CASRC), an inter-institutional research consortium focused on improving health and developmental services for children and families.
“I'm really excited to be here at SDSU,” Rieth said. “I think it's a really nice match with my focus on impacting the community — not just research for research's sake, but research to make a difference in people's lives.”