UTPA autism research goes international
Posted: 11/23/2011
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The work of a faculty member at The University of Texas-Pan American has piqued international interest in those who are studying autism and other developmental disorders.

UTPA faculty members are working with Federica Berardo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Parma in Italy on the possibilities of expanding Behavior Breakthroughs internationally. Pictured from left to right are Dr. Cheryl Fielding (BS '88 criminal justice), associate professor of educational psychology; Berardo; Julie Pecina (BS '94 interdisciplinary studies, M.Ed.'96 special education), lecturer in the educational psychology department; and Dr. John Lowdermilk, director of the Education Technology Resource Center and assistant professor of educational psychology.

Federica Berardo, a doctoral student at the University of Parma in Italy, came to Edinburg for three weeks in November to work with Dr. Cheryl Fielding, an associate professor of educational psychology at UTPA and Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and other faculty in the College of Education on researching the best methods to train educators and caregivers of children with developmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorders.

Specifically, Berardo has been looking at the effectiveness of Behavior Breakthroughs, a three-dimensional simulation program that Fielding helped develop, and is working with UTPA faculty on the possibilities of tailoring the program to fit the needs of caregivers in different countries.

Behavior Breakthroughs uses video game-based technology to train caregivers of children with autism or other developmental disorders how to handle the youths when they display challenging behavior.

"She's very concerned about providing the best methods of training staff and teachers and parents to work with children with exceptionalities," Fielding said. "She also shares an interest in technology. So we have many commonalities and our work has a lot of overlap to it."

Berardo, who is a behavioral analyst, said she plans to take what she's learned back to the University of Parma, as well as to three learning centers affiliated with the university that serve more than 200 children.

Berardo said parents and educators in Italy face many of the same challenges as their American counterparts: the lack of resources offered to help children and the high prices of the few resources that are available.

That's why she and the UTPA faculty are hoping to use this experience as a stepping stone to collaborate on research.

"We would think that we can find a way that is in common, a way that it is easier to use, like a software that is a first step to introduce some kind of content," Berardo said.

Using digital media is an ideal way to train caregivers because it is used widely throughout the world across socioeconomic statuses, said Dr. John Lowdermilk, director of the Education Technology Resource Center and assistant professor of educational psychology at UTPA.

"It cuts across every social strata. Media is something everyone gets," Lowdermilk said. "We know it works, we know it has an influence on people; why not take that and direct it toward teaching them how to work with their kids."

UTPA is also working with the University of Parma in creating a memorandum of understanding to continue working together to seek more funding for their research. The two institutions are also working on developing collaborative partnerships between the two institutions.

Since a free download of an iPhone and iPad application of the first level of the program became available earlier this year, the app has been downloaded about 18,000 times, Fielding said.

Fielding added that she has received requests from four faculty members from four separate higher learning institutions to use Behavior Breakthroughs. Requests are being referred to the game's developer Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. She has also heard the program is being used to train employees at a facility in Michigan that takes care of adults with special needs.

"I think that's very promising," she said.