A Small World Has Enormous Benefits for Autism Research

M. Yvonne Taylor
Dec. 9, 2015

What started with a letter between two special education professors a world apart has led to a decades-long international collaboration.

More than 20 years ago, special education professor Mark O’Reilly received a letter while in his native Ireland from a scholar in Australia.

“These were the days before the Internet and email,” explains O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

The scholar was professor Jeff Sigafoos, who was writing from the University of Queensland in Australia. He had come across a reference to one of O’Reilly’s papers to which his university library didn’t have access. “So I wrote to Mark and asked for a reprint,” says Sigafoos. “The letter I sent was sitting on Mark’s desk at home when his wife saw my name and mentioned that she had worked with a Jeff Sigafoos in Minnesota in the 1980s.”

Despite being thousands of miles apart, O’Reilly and Sigafoos discovered that the world was surprisingly small.

A Collaboration Begins

That letter marked the beginning of a personal and professional relationship that has lasted more than two decades and has benefited special education graduate students on two continents.

In 2001, Sigafoos joined the Special Education Department at the College of Education at UT Austin to establish a master’s and Ph.D. program in autism studies. Increased funding allowed the department to add another professor. O’Reilly joined his colleague and their partnership took off.

Though Sigafoos moved to New Zealand in 2005, their cooperative research and teaching continues.

The Research

Photo of Cindy Gevarter

Cindy Gevarter, Ph.D. presents research to UT and Victoria University students.

While research often leads to niche expertise, partnerships like O’Reilly and Sigafoos’ are incredibly valuable for their students and the field. According to Sigafoos, “Assessment and intervention are often viewed as somewhat separate activities, but Mark has always been a leader in aiming to integrate the two,” in regard to treatment of problem behaviors of people with developmental disabilities. Sigafoos extended these ideas and began to examine whether teaching a person better communication skills could reduce problem behavior in people with developmental disabilities.

“We then started to look at other issues, such as teaching social skills and using technology in educating people with developmental disabilities. We also collaborate with Giulio Lancioni, professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Sense Organs at the University of Bari, Italy, who is the world's most important researcher in using assistive technology to enable people with various types of disabilities and conditions, such as intellectual disability and Alzheimer's disease,” says Sigafoos.

“We have different expertise that can overlap,” says O’Reilly. “It’s a nice meld, and students benefit from that.”

The Benefit to Students

A cohort of eight to 10 doctoral students is enrolled each year in the special education programs at UT and at the University of Victoria in New Zealand. Like their professors, the students share research with each other and collaborate across oceans, developing research and sharing discoveries. The students collaborate via telephone, e-mail, and Skype, and present their findings to one another through video link and the occasional international trip.

One such collaboration occurred this summer.

Cindy Gevarter, a recent graduate from UT Austin’s special education doctoral program was one of about 16 graduate students who presented papers in a class using video conferencing technology that broadcast to students in New Zealand. Her paper, “Increasing the vocalizations of individuals with autism during speech generating device intervention,” has since been accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Photo of student panel

Doctoral students in special education engage in collaborative research colloquium with doctoral students from Victoria University New Zealand.

“I think the international collaborations are unique in that they allow UT students to work not only with leaders in the fields of autism and special education, but to work with leaders within our specific subsets or research areas,” says Gevarter. “Dr. Sigafoos' team researches augmentative and alternative communication systems, as I do, and knowing what questions they are asking and exploring helped me think about where my own research should be going next. It also provided an opportunity for me to get feedback on my own research, and questions asked by Dr. Sigafoos' students helped me to think about next steps for future research projects.”

Students at both universities also attend and present findings together at conferences, such as the Association for Behavior Analysis International Conference.

The benefit of international research collaborations like this can’t be overstated. “Students gain ongoing feedback at every stage of the study, from conceptualization to practical aspects of collecting the data to the write-up stage, which makes a high-quality project more likely,” explains Sigafoos. “They also get the opportunity to receive multiple perspectives and learn from each other.”

Says Gevarter, who is now an assistant professor and program coordinator of applied behavior analysis at Manhattanville College in New York, “I was able to enter this position with a number of publications that I think were a direct benefit of having access to a wide variety of experts in my field. It also has prompted me to work toward developing a collaborative research team with graduate students at Manhattanville and to continue to collaborate with colleagues from UT and beyond.”

“Students keep the international relationships they’ve made throughout their careers,” says O’Reilly, who knows firsthand the benefits a relationship made over two decades ago has had on autism research and education.

“It makes the world a smaller place.”