Rowan prof researches parents’ impact on their children with autism
Though neither she nor any family members have been diagnosed with autism, Dr. MaryLouise Kerwin lives with the condition virtually every day.
The New Jersey Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism awarded a $394,200 two-year grant to Kerwin, the chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Rowan University, to research parent-implemented treatment for autism in young children. She is in the second year of the Rowan Autism Parent Program, working with co-investigator Dr. Michelle Soreth, an associate professor of psychology at Rowan, and 17 undergraduate and graduate students and graduate alumni on the pilot study.
According to Autism Speaks, about 1 in 88 American children are on the autism spectrum–10 times as many as 40 years ago. Individuals with autism manifest the condition in different ways—and to various extremes—and receive various types of treatment for the brain disorder.
One aspect of Kerwin’s research focuses on assessing a treatment on the market that parents and schools districts use but which has never been evaluated.
“It could be effective. It could not be effective. We don’t know. One goal is to evaluate that treatment,” said Kerwin, who earned a Ph.D. and M.A. in counseling and developmental psychology and a B.A. in psychology from the University of Notre Dame and completed a pre-doctoral internship in pediatric psychology and behavioral analysis at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Kerwin and her team started their research last October and so far have worked with 23 South Jersey families with children ages two to six years old on all levels of the autism spectrum. Their study—which spans six months for the families—also focuses on an additional recognized approach to parental involvement and a control group.
Participants assigned to the treatment groups receive 16 individual treatment sessions in their home for 12 weeks. Children already receiving intervention may stay in their programs, but the team asks that parents do not enter their children in any new interventions during the study. After the training sessions, the parents work on treatment with their children in their homes. Participants are placed into groups randomly, and those who are not in a treatment group can opt to receive treatment from Rowan graduate students in their home after they have completed their involvement in the research.
“Parents of young children with autism have enormous needs,” Kerwin said. “The crux of our research is to teach them how to implement effective strategies to improve their child's functioning. We know that early intensive intervention is essential. The results of this study may maximize this critical window of opportunity.”
She added, “The pilot study has provided a wonderful infrastructure for us to offer clinical services to the community for participants and those who were not eligible for the study.”
Kerwin expects to develop a manual for parents after the initial study is completed, and she plans to apply for federal funding for a larger trial of the research.
“I hope that we are able in this study to identify whether these two interventions are effective and, if so, in what way,” Kerwin said. “My ultimate goal in all of the research is to make changes in policy about treatment for these children.”
Autism New Jersey promotes the study on its website, and participants have entered the study through that organization and via referrals from pediatric practices, the New Jersey Department of Health early intervention program and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, among other resources.
Entry into the study is on a rolling-admission basis. Participants are compensated for time and effort for periodic assessments conducted at Rowan. Kerwin and her team are actively recruiting children two to six years of age with autism. Those interested may call (856) 256-4846 or visit www.rowan.edu/abacenter. This clinical research is funded in part by The New Jersey Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism and the New Jersey Department of Health.