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Exploring the Gap between Autism Research and Practice


Posted by Nicole Stadnick, a 2010 Weatherstone predoctoral fellow at San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego (SDSU/UCSD). Nicole’s Weatherstone grant allowed her to study how effectively a research-based parent-training intervention could be delivered outside an academic setting.

My journey working within the autism community started nearly six years ago, as an undergraduate student in Arizona. I provided respite services at a family assistance organization for caregivers of children and teens with mental health or behavioral difficulties. Working with families affected by autism made me aware of the challenges they face in navigating service systems to find effective treatments. During this time, I also worked as a research assistant in a university-based study evaluating a behavioral intervention for children with anxiety.

I noticed a striking difference between the evidence-based practices delivered at a university and the care provided through a “real life” community agency. For example, the university-based intervention was developed and delivered by expert clinicians. By contrast, the community care varied widely in quality. I wanted to find ways to bridge this research-practice gap.

Bridging the academic-“real world” gap in services
As a graduate student in the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, I’ve been working with psychologists Aubyn Stahmer, PhD, and Lauren Brookman-Frazee, PhD. With their guidance, I developed the research project that became the foundation of my Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship.

Specifically, I’m examining the effectiveness of Teaching Social Communication, a behavioral intervention program for children and their caregivers. In a university setting, the methods used in this program have demonstrated considerable benefits for children with autism and their families. Delivered over 12 sessions, it teaches parents to work with their children in ways that improve child communication and social and play skills.

For my study, I enrolled 30 families. They came from a diverse group registered to receive autism services from community agencies. This ensured a greater diversity than one typically sees among families who volunteer for a research study.

Half received the Teaching Social Communication intervention. The other half continued to receive the standard services provided in their community. During this time, I assessed the children’s social and communication skills. I also tracked the parents’ stress levels and emotional wellbeing. I evaluated how well the children and parents played together.

My preliminary analyses suggest that the intervention had a positive impact. I hope to finalize the results in the coming months.

I am so grateful for the time and effort provided by the families who participated. They impressed me with their appreciation for the value of autism research and their perseverance in advocating for their children.

As my Weatherstone predoctoral fellowship comes to a close, I also want express my sincere gratitude for the support that I received from Autism Speaks. This experience has reaffirmed my commitment to improve services for children with autism and their families through research and clinical experiences.

Click here for more information about the Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship, and here for the inspiring blogs of other Weatherstone fellows.


The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.