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Early Intervention and Beyond: How Experience with Young Children and Special Education Motivated a Career in Autism Research

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we would like to share an interview with Dr. Stephanie Shire about her Early Career Development and Mentoring project. Dr. Shire, associate professor of Early Childhood Special Education at the University of Oregon, focuses her current research on young children with autism and their families. In this interview, she discusses this project as well as her prior experiences in early intervention and special education and advice for other early career researchers.

Please tell us about your IES Early Career project.

Headshot of Dr. Stephanie Shire

My IES Early Career project is titled LIFT: Leveraging Autism Interventions for Families through Telehealth. The idea behind this project—exploring the technology-assisted delivery of an established evidence-based, in-person, one-on-one, caregiver-mediated social communication intervention—began even prior to the pandemic, before the field had to shift service delivery to online family-mediated services for young children with autism. The project focuses on helping caregivers use the existing intervention strategies to advance their children’s social communication and play skills. We’re not changing or testing the established intervention for the children, but rather the way in which we support caregivers in their learning.

The project is being conducted in partnership with early intervention and early childhood special education community practitioners and leaders. Our partners were fundamental in the development and revision of the online intervention program, which took an intervention manual of several hundred pages designed for clinicians and turned it into a series of brief online modules that families can read or listen to at their own pace. Our partners also shaped the implementation strategies that we are now testing in a pilot randomized trial. Families enrolled in the trial are being served by their local early intervention and early childhood special education practitioners in their home communities in Oregon.

How did you become interested in research on interventions to help young children with autism?

I was introduced to young children with autism as a high school student volunteering in a hospital playroom and as a special education classroom volunteer in my first year as an undergraduate student. In both cases, these preschool and school-age children had few or no words. I watched the practitioners try to connect and engage with the children with mixed success. I then spent the next several years as an undergraduate student working as an in-home intervention aide delivering services to young children with autism, many of whom had few or no words. I found myself failing to support the children’s progress, particularly with their communication skills. My desire to do more for these children prompted me to pursue additional resources and learn more about practices to better support them. This led me on a path to graduate school, first at the master’s level and then doctoral-level training, focused on intervention science to learn more about the development and testing of interventions to maximize communication development for young children with autism.

What do you find most rewarding about conducting research with young children with autism and their families?

Children and their families are at the heart of all my research team’s projects. Celebrating the moments when a child shows us a new idea in play, makes a joke, or points to something to share it with us lights up my entire lab! The greatest reward is seeing children shine and experience victories, big and small.

What are your next steps in this line of research?

We’re taking what we’re learning now, as well as the training that I’ve received in implementation science, to work on the next steps in this research project. We need to understand how to personalize implementation strategies for caregivers to help more families advance their children’s social communication skills through play and daily activities. Because this intervention has an adaptive component, we are now looking at combining sequences of supports for caregivers based on their individual progress halfway through implementing the intervention.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Persist. In special education and early intervention, we are still acutely feeling the effects of the pandemic on a system that was already experiencing many challenges. There will be bumps along the way, but children show us every day that they can keep accomplishing small victories even in the face of obstacles. Let’s follow their lead and do the work in partnership with their caregivers and educators to keep building toward big victories for all children and their families. 

Thank you, Dr. Stephanie Shire, for sharing your early career research experience!

This blog was produced by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. KatieTaylor, NCSER program officer, manages grants funded under The Early Career Development and Mentoring Program Program.