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Doctoral Student Helping Children with Autism Find Their Voices

by and on February 29, 2016 6:00 AM
University Park, PA

Michelle Therrien, a doctoral student at Penn State, understands the importance of children building relationships at school.

She also understands how difficult creating such friendships can be for children with complex communication needs due to a developmental disability, such as autism.

That’s why Therrien is working with 3- to 5-year-olds diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, who also have trouble communicating through the spoken word, as part of a study that she hopes will improve children’s ability to make friends with peers who do not have communicative disabilities.

Children with disabilities who have difficulty communicating are at risk for not developing relationships with their peers,” Therrien said. “In school, kids are talking to their friends all of the time and I want these kids to have the same experience. I think building relationships with other peers is an important part of school and childhood as a whole. My goal is to give these children a way to do that.”

Over the course of 10 weeks, Therrien plans to study six preschool aged children with complex communication needs and their interactions with peer partners to see if an iPad and application, Go Talk Now, can help children improve their communication skills and therefore enhance their abilities to build relationships with their peers.

For the study, the participant and peer partner will look at picture books. The children will also have an iPad with the Go Talk Now app displaying the same books. The app will allow the children to communicate thoughts and feelings about the book by touching the screen. For example, the child may touch a part of the screen that identifies a truck and the sound a truck makes.

The goal, Therrien said, is for both the participant and peer partner to engage in communication through the iPad app. Ultimately, Therrien hopes the engagement will develop into a friendship or at minimum provide the participant with skills to build friendships with other peers at school.

Therrien is still seeking participants for the study. Parents in Central Pennsylvania who believe their child may be a candidate for the study can use the contact information below.

For this study, the ASHFoundation recently issued Therrien a Student Research Grant in early childhood language development at the annual American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention in Denver.

Therrien is conducting the study as her part of her dissertation under the guidance of Janice Light, the Hintz Family Endowed Chair in Children's Communicative Competence in the Department of Communication and Sciences Disorders.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Jennifer Miller is a reporter for She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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