Skip to Main ContentCOE HomeSDSU Home

Search I&I News

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Suhrheinrich Nets U.S. Dept. of Education Grant to Improve Autism Education

Dr. Jessica Suhrheinrich

Dr. Jessica Suhrheinrich, associate professor in the San Diego State University Department of Special Education, is beginning work on a federally-funded project aimed at empowering educators who work with young students with autism.

Over the summer, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences awarded Suhrheinrich a grant of more than $1.4 million over 4 years to develop a tool to make Classroom Pivotal Response Teaching (CPRT) — a naturalistic, behavioral intervention for children with autism — simpler to deliver and more customizable for preschool and elementary school teachers and paraprofessionals.

“We’re looking at the element of fit between the intervention itself and the classroom setting, and being able to tailor interventions to better meet the needs of teachers and specific student needs,” Suhrneinrich said. “This is a new area of research. The model we're developing is to apply to one intervention for students with autism, but it will hopefully be replicable across other interventions.” 

The need to improve educator training around autism is unmistakable. While 1 in 54 children have been diagnosed with the disorder according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data have shown that students with autism underperform on educational outcomes compared to peers with other disabilities.

“In terms of scores on standardized testing and graduation rates, students with autism would be considered underserved — or at least their needs are not met effectively,” Suhrheinrich said. “So there's a constant push on the federal and state level to improve the quality and effectiveness of the interventions that can be provided in schools."

Partnering with the California Autism Professional Training and Information Network as well as school districts in rural Illinois, Suhrheinrich will study archival data to identify which components of the CPRT intervention work together with various classroom environmental factors to result in the best outcomes for students. The end product will be an interactive decision tree that will allow educators to tailor the intervention based on characteristics specific to their situation, such as class size or the communication abilities of their students.

One aspect of the grant aimed at improving access in rural school districts also aligns well with the current COVID-19 moment — a focus on distance training and coaching. Funding will be used to develop and test the efficacy of interactive training modules for educators.

The project builds off of Suhrheinrich’s past research to tailor interventions for classrooms to support students with autism. Suhrheinrich is also leading a grant-funded scale-up of training for autism educators across California. (Learn more about the California Autism Professional Training and Information Network (CAPTAIN))

"An important vein throughout my work is that it is heavily reliant on community partners,” Suhrheinrich said. “It's integral in this project, as in previous projects, that the teachers, the school administrators and school systems feel like we are creating a tool that is needed and feasible.”