Grant to improve outcomes for children with complex communication disabilities

A group of Penn State researchers have received a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to address a shortage of faculty who can conduct research and train speech-language pathologists to provide interventions to improve outcomes for the more than four million Americans who have such complex disabilities that they cannot meet their communication needs through their own speech.

Such individuals include people with developmental disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome; those with acquired disabilities like traumatic brain injury or stroke; and those with degenerative disabilities like ALS or muscular dystrophy. These individuals require assistance through Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and assistive technologies. AAC systems often include computers, tablets or mobile devices, which help both children and adults.

The Penn State AAC Leadership Project is a five-year grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. It will prepare 10 new doctoral scholars to assume faculty roles by developing their competencies in research, research-based teaching, leadership, and evidence-based practices to improve services and results for children with complex communication disabilities who require AAC.

“Nationally, there are extreme shortages of doctoral-level faculty to conduct research and provide research-based training to speech-language pathologists and other educational and rehabilitation personnel,” said principal investigator Janice Light, professor of communication sciences and disorders and Hintz Family Endowed Chair in Children's Communicative Competence at Penn State. “As a result of these acute personnel shortages, there is limited research to inform educational and rehabilitation practice and improve results for these individuals who are among the most difficult to serve.”

Researchers say that part of the issue is many university programs lack faculty with the necessary expertise to provide research-based training in AAC, and many speech-language pathologists and other professionals graduate without the competencies required to implement evidence-based practices in AAC.

“As a result, children and adults who require AAC fail to receive the services needed to attain communicative competence, maximize educational and vocational achievement, and attain their full potential,” Light said. “This grant will help shift that trend into a positive direction where individuals with complex needs see better outcomes in an area critical to all people — communication.”

Co-investigators include Jessica Caron, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders; David McNaughton, professor of special education at Penn State, with a dual appointment in communication sciences and disorders; Carol Miller, professor of communication sciences and disorders and linguistics; Krista Wilkinson, professor of communication sciences and disorders; and Diane Williams, professor and head of the Penn State Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.