Research Projects

Current Areas of Investigation

Identifying Symptoms of Autism in Babies

Researchers have found that infant siblings of children with autism can show symptoms of ASD before their first birthday. Senior Program Director Dr. Rebecca MacDonald is replicating a remarkable study by Graupner and Sallows (2017) of the Wisconsin Early Autism Project on early identification of autism. Recent data from the study suggests that symptoms — such as fleeting attention and lack of smiling, reciprocal cooing and babbling — can emerge as early as the first two months of life. In the Wisconsin Study, 14 babies were identified as symptomatic prior to the age of 6 months and received 15 to 40 hours of 1:1 early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) from a therapist.  EIBI includes, but is not limited to, ongoing cooing, eye contact, and extended playing with a trained therapist.  Of the 14 who showed symptoms, 13 showed no symptoms by 24 months after their treatment.

 The goal of early identification of autism and early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) is to prevent the full onset of ASD as a toddler develops. Dr. MacDonald’s research is funded by grants and the NECC Annual Fund.  If you are interested in having your child participate in the study, please contact Dr. MacDonald at

To support this research, make a gift here.


Promoting Generalization of Foundational Skills

Foundational skills like waiting, imitation, and responding to greetings are important to expanding opportunities for independence and inclusion for individuals with autism.  These skills, however, are useful only to the extent that they occur in desired contexts, and strategies for promoting generalization require a great deal of planning.  Over the past few years we have conducted several studies evaluating a strategy to facilitate generalization using the Autism Curriculum Encyclopedia® (ACE).  The instructional matrix strategy introduces planned variation in instructions and instructional settings, selected in consideration of the times and places in which the skill will be most needed.  Our goal has been both to promote generalization of important skills and to reduce the burden on teachers so that they may focus on teaching.  In our initial comparisons we have seen that this new approach has resulted in a 40% increase in the number of situations where we see the desired skill following training.  Currently we’re continuing to expand our approach across a variety of skills, and we are conducting a field test with select ACE lesson plans.


Meals Without Tears: Treating Food Selectivity and Mealtime Problem Behavior Using Caregiver Input

Selective eating can negatively impact a child’s physical development, and when combined with mealtime problem behavior, it is disruptive to a family’s life. The purpose of our set of studies is to evaluate an assessment and skill-based treatment of food selectivity without evoking problem behavior. In Study 1, we used caregiver input to populate a single stimulus preference analysis. We identified foods the child regularly eats, foods the caregiver would like the child to eat, mealtime problem behavior, and other variables possibly influencing food selectivity, such as alternative foods or activities presented during mealtimes. Based on the results of the analyses, we were able to make treatment recommendations for most participants. In Study 2, we conducted a functional analysis and found that mealtime problem behavior was maintained by escape from non-preferred foods and access to preferred foods and electronics. We used those reinforcers to teach the participants appropriate requests for alternatives, tolerance for delays to or denials of those requests, and compliance with food-related shaping steps. By the end of treatment, participants ate small meals consisting of a variety of previously non-preferred foods. Treatment was extended to relevant caregivers and environments. Throughout the process, inappropriate mealtime behavior occurred at low rates and severe problem behavior did not occur, suggesting that these procedures are indeed useful for assessing and treating food selectivity safely and effectively.


Increasing Physical Activity

To maximize health and wellness, children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can greatly benefit from daily physical activity. However, some children do not readily engage in physical activity. Therefore, it is important to identify methods for increasing physical activity among children with ASD. We are currently conducting two studies related to this goal. Study 1 will involve using heart rate measures to identify appropriate forms of physical activity to target during treatment. Study 2 will involve a treatment for increasing exercise that includes the following components alone or in combination: prompting, non-contingent reinforcement (NCR), and differential reinforcement. Additionally, a preference assessment of physical activities will be conducted before and after treatment to determine whether participants select one activity over another and if their selections remain consistent following treatment. The expected benefit of these studies is that appropriate forms of exercise can be identified and their levels of activity engagement increased to meet their individual fitness goals.


Assessment and Treatment of Problem Behavior during Dental Exams

Over the years, we have evaluated numerous approaches to helping our students more successfully tolerate and participate in dental exams.  To that end, a series of projects on graduated exposure to dental exams (“dental desensitization”) was initiated.  In these studies, we have evaluated the role of brief breaks during practice dental exams, the role of rewards during practice dental exams, the timing of practice dental exams, and the extent to which we can practice dental exam components in a more familiar and convenient environment.   Our results to date suggest that arranging breaks and rewards for cooperation during practice dental exams yields the greatest cooperation, and that frequent practice exams produce far greater improvements than occasional practice.  Further, our research suggests that practicing dental exam components in a simulated dental environment produces a significant improvement in our students’ performance during actual dental exams.


Persistence of Responding following DRA

Behavioral momentum theory research has demonstrated that differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) based interventions, while decreasing the rate of a target response (i.e., problem behavior), may in fact increase the persistence of target responses when reinforcement for the alternative response is disrupted. Previous studies have demonstrated that by training the alternative response in a context in which a target response has no history of reinforcement and then combining this context with one in which the target response has a history of reinforcement, the persistence increasing effects of DRA can be minimized when disruption occurs. One of our studies is aimed at demonstrating the effects of reinforcement histories on persistence of targeted responses across multiple phases of reinforcement and extinction conditions.