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April 20, 2021

$3.2M grant to advance early intervention for children with autism

A multi-institution research team has earned more than $12 million total from the National Institute for Mental Health, or NIMH, to fund a multi-site clinical trial examining effective early intervention methods for toddlers with or at-risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder. The researchers are part of RISE (Reciprocal Imitation and Social Engagement), a national network of researchers investigating intervention and parent coaching strategies.

High quality, evidence-based early intervention for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, can have a strong impact on their development and success. However, the rise in ASD prevalence poses a challenge for publicly funded systems that are ill-equipped to offer high- quality, evidence-based interventions.

The challenge the research team intends to address is variance between practices, with a goal of improving services and outcomes for those showing early signs of ASD.

“The goal of this research is to increase timely and equitable access to ASD-specialized early intervention during the critical first three years of life by capitalizing on the existing infrastructure of early intervention systems that are publicly funded and available in all U.S. States,” said Brooke Ingersoll, professor of clinical psychology at Michigan State University, director of MSU’s Autism Research Lab and lead investigator of the MSU site.

Between the team of RISE research partners, MSU’s portion of the grant is $3.2 million.

Specifically, analyzing the effectiveness of Reciprocal Imitation Teaching, or RIT, is the focus of the study, Ingersoll said.

“This project will train early intervention providers to use an evidence-based, inexpensive, parent-implemented intervention that can improve child and family outcomes,” Ingersoll said. “RIT is ideally suited for early intervention settings because it is low intensity, play-based, easy to learn and implement and can be taught to family members for their independent use.”

Members of the research team have previously researched and shown the efficacy of RIT for improving child outcomes, and its feasibility and acceptability for parents and intervention providers.

Working alongside Ingersoll are researchers Wendy Stone and Lisa Ibanez of the University of Washington, Allison Wainer of Rush Medical School, Alice Carter of the University of Massachusetts — Boston, Sarabeth Broder-Fingert and Chris Sheldrick of Boston University/Boston Medical Center.

Ingersoll and her team will test the effectiveness training providers in the Part C Early Intervention System to teach parents to use RIT with their child. They will also examine mechanisms by which parent-implemented RIT leads to improved child and family outcomes, and how provider-initiated modifications to the intervention influence outcomes.

“ASD is a common developmental disorder, affecting 1 in 59 children in the U.S.,” Ingersoll said. “If we can identify effective methods for improving social, language and cognitive outcomes that are feasible for publicly-funded systems, we can increase access to effective care and improve outcomes for thousands of young children who show early signs of ASD.”

To read more on their work on this project, visit

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