According to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, approximately 1 in 44 children have been identified as having autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Lauren Hampton, an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, has spent her entire career supporting families and young children on the autism spectrum. She began her career as an early childhood Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), an experience that ultimately influenced her toward a research focus on optimizing early parent-mediated interventions to improve social communication and behavior.
Currently the Principal Investigator of SibWatch, a study looking to optimize intervention for toddler siblings of autistic children who have an increased likelihood for autism or language delays, Dr. Hampton continues to advocate for better autism awareness, understanding and research funding.
She spoke with us about her passion for working with young children with autism, their families and the community.
Tell us about your background and how you arrived at the College of Education at UT Austin?
My background is as an early childhood Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). During my time as a BCBA I was challenged with finding the best methods for supporting families of young children. My questions about what, how and when to teach new strategies to family members drove me back to graduate school. I completed my Ph.D. in special education at Vanderbilt University in 2016, and then I completed a postdoctoral fellowship in communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University in 2019. This cross-disciplinary approach helped me focus my work on optimizing early language interventions. The early childhood area of the Department of Special Education and the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk provided a perfect foundation for me to grow this work through the focus on early intervention, behavior analysis and multidisciplinary approaches.
Can you tell us more about your current research around behavior and autism?
My research focuses on optimizing early parent-mediated interventions to improve social communication and behavior. Two of my current projects address this goal by using a sequential multiple assignment randomized trial (SMART) which allows us to evaluate individual differences within interventions so we can optimize outcomes for all families and children. In one study we are looking to optimize intervention for toddler siblings of autistic children who have an increased likelihood for autism or language delays. We work with families to implement play-based strategies throughout their everyday routines to support social communication. In another study we are looking at the best sequence for supporting both communication and behavior for 2 to 3-year-olds with autism. Both projects will allow us to make recommendations about how, when, and what intervention tools to use for individual parent and child profiles.
How did you become interested in this kind of research?
My work as a clinician left me frustrated because the evidence-based practices I was attempting to implement did not account for individual differences. I recognized early on that we need tools that are flexible, responsive to changes in individuals over time, and provide clear guidelines for when and how to adapt. Through some of my early work I have already seen the benefit of adaptive interventions that allows us to customize our approach based on child skill, parent preference or child response to intervention.
What impact do you hope to have on the children and their families through your research?
I hope to improve the lives of children on the autism spectrum and their families. For me, this means that my research must be closely aligned with perspectives from community stakeholders. I do this on my current projects by engaging a community board that includes autistic adults and parents of young children on the autism spectrum. This board helps us ensure that our work is relevant, interpretable, responsive to the needs of the community, and interpreted through the correct lens. Additionally, this board helps us think about our next projects and priorities. While it can be challenging to incorporate these different perspectives, it is critical ensuring that my program of research is squarely aligned with the community’s priorities and is useable in real world settings. By incorporating these perspectives I hope that my work will have a positive and direct impact on children and families in central Texas and beyond.
Tell us about your role within SibWatch?
I am the Principal Investigator which means I designed the study and oversee the everyday decisions to ensure that the work is scientifically rigorous and that we are meeting our benchmarks. This includes ensuring that our intervention is implemented with high fidelity, our measures are practical and complete, and that we are recruiting a diverse pool of participants.
What excites you about it?
In response to the pandemic we pivoted our SibWatch project to being 100% virtual. This is exciting because it means we are able to engage with families across the U.S. in different communities. It also brings many challenges! I am excited about improving this model of research and learning form this process so that future studies can be accessible to more families who typically don’t have the opportunity to engage in research.
In your current work what question or issue do you find the most fascinating?
Usually, in parent-mediated interventions we focus on one primary caregiver. When available, we are incorporating additional caregivers to understand how child communication varies across caregivers. We are already noticing some interesting differences that are raising some new ideas for us when thinking about how we might better intervene with the family more wholistically in the future.
Any other new projects you are working on or a part of?
I am also proud to be part of our new Autism Consortium of Texas Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (ACT-LEND) program. This program provides interdisciplinary training to students, family members, and self-advocates in culturally informed diagnosis, support and advocacy for children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities throughout the Capital Region and Central Texas. This truly unique 9-month program includes coursework, seminars, research and presentation opportunities, mentorship, and hands-on experiences in clinical or community-based settings. This program is core to keeping my work focused on children and families through the connections that it facilitates.
Visit the SibWatch website to learn more about the study and how to get involved in autism research.