Serving All Learners

October 21, 2013

Expanding research on autism and intellectual disabilities across the lifespan


The commitment to serve all learners runs deep in the Michigan State University College of Education.

Every day, our faculty members are searching for new ways to help individuals with various disabilities, from brain injuries and physical impairments to emotional issues and academic challenges.

In recent years, this mission has shifted to focus more resources on a particularly fast-growing problem: autism. One in 88 children now have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to a rate of 1 in 125 less than a decade ago.

College of Education researchers Summer Ferreri and Sara (Bolt) Witmer made waves when they conducted the first statewide study of autism-related services in Michigan schools two years ago and found that more than 40 percent of educators weren’t using some of the most effective known teaching methods.

Since then, MSU Special Education leaders have hired more faculty members specializing in autism and launched new programs (see page 29 for the latest) designed to prepare educators serving children with ASDs. Autism-related research has been on the rise among Special Education, School Psychology, Rehabilitation Counseling and even Kinesiology faculty members within the college.

And now, the entire university is ramping up its capacity to conduct cross-disciplinary research on autism and other impairments. This year, MSU launched the Research in Autism, Intellectual and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (RAIND) initiative to connect researchers doing related work in medicine, social science, education and other areas across campus, and to provide centrally funded research grants that could support powerful breakthroughs in the future.

Not surprisingly, RAIND was sparked in part by the leadership of a College of Education professor, Michael Leahy. For the past three years, Leahy has been building a massive international research venture focused on finding new solutions for people with intellectual disabilities, which typically refers to what was formerly known as mental retardation and some forms of autism.

The DOCTRID Institute involves partners at the Daughters of Charity Service in Ireland, eight Irish universities and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Through a large network of scholars in multiple disciplines, the institute will be driven by many of the same goals and principles as the new coalition at MSU.

The bottom line? Improve more lives by working together.

CoverStory_1“There is a very clear call, not only in this university, for research to be more interdisciplinary,” said Leahy, who serves as co-director of RAIND with the College of Human Medicine’s Nigel Paneth. “We plan to bring all the contributors together to address a very complex issue.”

Technology will play an increasingly large role, providing opportunities for researchers in engineering, computer science and gaming to contribute expertise.

RAIND and DOCTRID are both set up to investigate the full range of function, from the very mild to most severe disabilities, as well as the entire age spectrum.

Leaders believe that MSU is laying the groundwork, backed by international connections, to become a go-to center for autism and intellectual disability research. And the College of Education will play a critical role.

Current projects, for example, include modifying an online reading curriculum for young children with autism, using video-modeling to teach social skills to teens with autism and developing interventions to help high-functioning young adults get and keep good jobs. One scholar is looking inside the brain for clues about the underlying causes of neurodevelopmental disabilities. And kinesiology researchers are exploring how exercise can enhance academic performance for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Research and teaching about a variety of disabilities has long been an important mission of the College of Education,” said Dean Donald Heller. “As the impact of disabilities across the lifespan becomes better understood, we have been increasing our efforts to identify strategies to help people with disabilities—and train the next generation of teachers, counselors and researchers.”

On the web

Research on Autism, Intellectual and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities:

Faculty member Jodene Fine’s recent anatomical research findings:

Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies (Rehabilitation Counseling programs):

Special Education programs:

School Psychology programs: