About the Work Group on Autism Research and Training

Exciting Discoveries into Causes

A driving force behind the creation of the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training in 2008 was the need expressed by Kansas parents, professionals and service providers for the leadership of University of Kansas scientists and clinicians in both researching Autism Spectrum Disorders and in disseminating evidence-based training and practices.

Director Debra Kamps and Co-Director Matthew Reese forged a mission that unequivocally recognizes and addresses that need: to promote research and training on the causes, nature and management of Autism Spectrum Disorders that is committed to the highest standards of scientific rigor.


One of the first things K-CART Director Debra Kamps and her colleagues decided to do was to attract more scientists from across KU, KUMC and other regional universities to research Autism Spectrum Disorders. Beginning in 2008, this became the Discovery Grant program that awarded small grants for critical pilot research each year. The program was made possible by a combined KU/KUMC five-year $1 million contribution. Funding for pilot research is scarce but data from such studies are often critical to win external support from government and private funders.

young matronsThe award winners competed for the $25,000–$40,000 grants that recognize original empirical research that advances scientific knowledge and contributes to the overall competitiveness of K-CART for external funding.

"K-CART is committed to the discovery of new information and dissemination to impact people with autism. The awardees exemplify collaboration among disciplines and across campuses to address the complexities and challenges in Autism Spectrum Disorders," said Debra Kamps, K-CART director.

2008 Awards

2009 Awards

2010 Awards


Since it was established in 2008, K-CART has affiliated with 36 researchers focusing on autism and related research from four KU campuses and many scientific fields, to raise awareness and to pave the way for collaboration and consultation. These affiliates are currently pursuing several externally funded research projects supported by federal, state and private grant competitions. See kcart.ku.edu/research for more information. The following grants typify how KU scientists are approaching autism's challenges from basic to intervention studies.

Communication Success and AAC: A Model of Symbol Acquisition

Many children with developmental delays, including autism, are at risk for not developing symbolic communication (words) so they are often taught to use augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) such as signs, picture selection, and/or voice output communication aids. Although the use of AAC by preschool children, with very different histories and characteristics, is increasing, there is not much research to guide researchers or practitioners. This longitudinal study is testing the relationships between variables and three different outcomes: symbolic vocabulary development, communication success and symbol substitutions. One hundred young children with developmental disabilities and 20 young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) who are learning AAC are participating in the study. This research is expected to produce the largest data set collected so far from a prospective study of young children learning AAC. Nancy Brady, associate professor, directs the study with Kathy Thiemann-Bourque, assistant research professor, as co- investigator. The project is funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Girls at Work

girls at workGirls at Work, a project funded by the Women's Educational Equity Project, has successfully forged a way forward for transition teams at schools to help young women with disabilities to determine and pursue new kinds of employment as adults, including self- and customized employment. An online curriculum assists middle and high-school girls in a problem-solving process focusing on postsecondary education or employment. Twenty-three Kansas schools implemented the curriculum. Forty-four young Kansas women with developmental disabilities obtained employment and/or are attending postsecondary programs. Girls at Work products and activities are continuing beyond the scope of the project. The curriculum is being widely disseminated in Kansas and nationally and several participating school personnel are using the Girls at Work curriculum as part of their teaching practices even though the project has ended. Building on the success of this project, project director Research Associate Professor Wendy Parent was awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Education to design a web-based curriculum for both boys and girls with severe developmental disabilities, maintaining the theoretical foundation of self-determination, gender awareness and customized employment.

Promoting Social Communication Competency in Toddlers with Autism

As infants transition into toddlerhood at 12 months, nonverbal social communication in the form of joint attention typically emerges. However, this is not the case for children who will later be diagnosed with autism. Joint attention, a critical social-communication milestone, is defined as visually coordinating attention with another person in relation to an object or event, sharing social interest and perceiving the partner's mutual interest. Joint attention supports communication, cognitive and social- emotional development. Research has shown that deficits in joint attention have a cascading effect on language development. Kathleen Baggett, assistant research professor, along with colleagues at the University of Northern Colorado and University of North Carolina, are testing an intervention model that is based on knowledge of early development in autism that can be implemented by parents. The three-year project is funded by Autism Speaks.

Autism Peer Networks

autism peer networksCore features of Autism Spectrum Disorders in children include problems learning basic social and communication skills, a gap that widens over time. According to K-CART Director Debra Kamps, senior scientist, Peer Networks teach those necessary survival skills as children begin kindergarten and first grade: early social-communication skills to interact with peers and teachers; literacy skills that are the foundation for all academic content and classroom functioning, and the ability to participate in groups. The Peer Networks project, headed by Kamps at KU with Ilene Schwartz, chair and professor of special education at the University of Washington, will examine how well children with ASD learn both social and academic skills working in small groups with typically developing classmates.

Eight districts, 35 schools across two sites and 55 teachers are participating. Thirty-two children (kindergarten and first grade) with autism and 158 peers are enrolled in social networks; 39 peers are enrolled in reading networks with the same students. Over four years, 60 children will receive the intervention and 60 children will serve as a comparison group. Using culturally diverse classrooms in Kansas and Washington, the randomized four-year trial will evaluate if and how to teach and sustain generalized learning and social skills necessary for the successful participation of children with ASD in typical school settings. The project is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences. Linda Heitzman-Powell and Kathy Thiemann-Bourque are co-principal investigators for the KU site.

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