10:55 AM

Professors win grants to continue training families, educators of children with autism


The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Autism Program has granted University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities two awards totaling more than $800,000.

One grant will fund the Applied Behavior Academy for Teachers and Paraprofessionals, led by Professor of Behavior Analysis Dorothea Lerman, who is also UH-Clear Lake’s director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. Lerman’s program provides training to pre-K-12 paraprofessionals and teachers of students with autism in the Houston area. The second supports the Connecting the Dots program, run by Associate Professors of Behavior Analysis Jennifer Fritz and Sarah Lechago.

Lerman said that her grant, which totals $466,893, would train educators in at least six school districts — Fort Bend, Clear Creek, Goose Creek, Pasadena, Alvin and Dickinson Independent School Districts.

“I will have two master’s level board certified behavior analysts directing the program and they will be assisted by three graduate students,” Lerman said. “We hope to train 72 teachers and 72 paraprofessionals per year for two years, and our goal is to serve at least 425 students with autism per year, focusing on understanding and managing problem behavior.”

Fritz, who is director of CADD’s Severe Behavior Disorders Research Clinic, and Lechago, director of CADD’s Verbal Behavior Clinic, have been teaching caregivers of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder to decrease problem behavior and increase communication and language. “The overarching aim is to teach families how the principles of behavior analysis apply across the board,” Fritz said.

“I specialize in communication, language and social skills,” said Lechago. “The relationship between most problem behavior in children with autism can be due to a deficit in communication. Connect the Dots is a program in which we help caregivers understand the relationship between problem behavior and communication deficits, and ways in which behavior analysis principles apply to both language acquisition and problem behavior.”

Lechago and Fritz have won this grant every year since 2016. “This year, we have received $366,811 and it’s extended through 2022,” Fritz said. “We are adding some new features, including moving the lecture series online to reach more people.”

“We are also looking to add to the literature about telehealth service provision supported by our wonderful site managers,” Lechago said. ‘We were moving in this direction even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each time we apply for the grant, we change some aspects to see if we can expand our reach based on lessons learned from past experiences. Connecting the Dots just keeps growing.”

The new grant, said Lechago, would begin in July. “None of this would work without our excellent Board Certified Behavior Analysts,” she said, adding that services were offered on UH-Clear Lake’s main campus in the Arbor South building, at UHCL Pearland, and at the Texas Children’s Hospital in the Autism Center.

Even though there is still uncertainty about what will happen in school districts in the fall due to COVID-19 concerns, Lerman said, services would continue. “Regardless of what happens, we will adapt our training and potentially do some combination of virtual and in-class training with teachers,” she said.

Read more about UHCL’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities online.