Connie Kasari: Education Scholar Receives $13 Million NIH Autism Centers of Excellence Award

Autism expert will examine instruction for underrepresented children with autism and minimal verbal communication.

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Education professor Connie Kasari has received a $13 million Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund research involving minimally verbal children. Kasari also received funding for a separate ACE project involving parents and their infants who are at risk for autism.

Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS) dean and distinguished professor of education Marcelo M. Su├írez-Orozco said: “This very significant and generous award will help a great many children and their families who live with a disorder that can have devastating effects on fundamental abilities and skills. The award is a testament to the extraordinary work of GSE&IS at the nexus of research, intervention and practice in the service of the common good. Such support enables our faculty to continue their commitment to working in underserved communities and to increasing effective interventions in our community schools.”

“We are very excited for this opportunity to provide intensive interventions to children who are minimally verbal and often underrepresented in current intervention studies, and are also underserved by our current knowledge,” Kasari said. “However, this award will allow for the possibility of real growth in our knowledge of these children, and especially to make a meaningful difference in these children’s lives and their families.”

Kasari will serve as principal investigator on an ACE Network grant that will compare two types of intensive, daily instruction for an underrepresented population of children in schools in underserved communities who have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and who use only minimal verbal communication. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of school-aged children with an ASD remain minimally verbal even after receiving years of behavioral interventions. Researchers on the five-year network study plan to enroll 200 children in four cities, including Los Angeles, Nashville, New York and Rochester, N.Y.

Additionally, Kasari will direct an ACE project within UCLA’s ACE Center grant that will rigorously test an intervention program for infants at-risk of an ASD and their parents. The study will examine a developmentally informed intervention program that is child-centered and focused on joint attention, which is the ability to attend to a conversation or activity along with another person, considered a core deficit among children with autism and a critical concern for at-risk infants. The study will compare a play-group intervention focused on joint attention and joint engagement with an intervention that involves parents and children in typical community play groups.

The NIH established the ACE program in 2007 to launch an intense and coordinated research program into the causes of ASD and to find new treatments. The ACE award features projects investigating sex differences in ASD and investigating ASD and limited speech.

Kasari, who is a member of UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART), holds appointments in the Department of Education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and in the Department of Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.