Transitioning Children with Autism to School

Researchers recruiting families for study that will focus on essential ingredients of a successful transition from intensive early intervention to the public school system

Jan Blacher

Jan Blacher, founding director of SEARCH, a family autism resource center at UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — A University of California, Riverside education professor has started recruiting children for a first-of-its-kind study that will assess how children with autism adapt to the early school years and identify predictors that will lead to a successful transition.

The research, made possible by a nearly $1.2 million grant, is led by Jan Blacher, a professor and founding director of the SEARCH (Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community, Hope) family autism research center at UC Riverside. It focuses on the essential ingredients of a successful transition from intensive early intervention, which most children with autism receive when they are first diagnosed, to the public school system.

“Typically, it has not been smooth sailing when parents transition their child from intensive home therapy to kindergarten, where services may be less intense or less personalized,” Blacher said. “It’s really frustrating watching this happen, and often it leads to friction on the part of parents and schools. We need data to drive the daily decisions about what constitutes a good transition – what works, and what doesn’t.”

This research aims to change that.

Past research on typically developing children, not those with autism spectrum disorders, has demonstrated that the quality of children’s relationships with their teachers is related to subsequent academic and social adjustment.

The quality of student-teacher relationships may be particularly important for children with autism spectrum disorders because they often lack the social skills and have behavioral challenges that make it difficult to build positive relationships with teachers that may help protect them against later school adjustment problems.

Blacher, along with Abbey Eisenhower, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and co-principal investigator on the project called “Smooth Sailing,” received the three-year grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Blacher and Eisenhower, along with their graduate students and staff, are both recruiting 90 children, ages 4 to 7 who have been diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder, to take part in the study.

In Riverside, after being screened for eligibility, parents and children will be invited to visit campus three times over 18 months.

During each visit, children will be assessed on their academic skills, with a focus on language and literacy. Parents will also be interviewed to assess perceived school factors, such as quality learning opportunities and child engagement. In addition, parents and teachers will complete questionnaires to measure factors such as the child’s social skills and behavior, the parent’s involvement in school, and the student-teacher-relationship.

In return, parents and children will receive $150, an assessment summary after the first visit this fall, a parent-child DVD after the second visit in the spring and a developmental summary at the third visit during the following school year.

For more information, call SEARCH at (951) 827-3849.

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