Break-Through Behaviors

May 11, 2011

Getting the attention of young children with severe autism can be challenging enough—let alone teaching them to speak for the ?rst time.

By Nicole Geary

Doctoral graduate Josh Plavnick has experienced that moment more than once.

In a recent study, he showed preschool-age students, who until that time were completely non-verbal, video footage on an iPod touch that depicted an older child asking an adult for something exciting, like a favorite toy inside a clear container.

Then Plavnick set the exact same item in front of the student and waited.

The child may not have responded the ?rst few tries. “Open the box” may have started as only “Oh . . .” in later attempts.

But, in three out of four cases, the children in his study ultimately acquired verbal language and kept it.

“His results were amazing,” said Plavnick’s advisor Summer Ferreri, assistant professor of special education in the College of Education. “Before, these students just did not have any communication skills whatsoever.”

Plavnick’s dissertation at Michigan State University, the kind of research project that can launch a stellar academic career, grew from years of experimenting with innovative behavioral interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and all the steps leading up to their success.

In the case of his ?nal project, he applied existing techniques to address one of the most important (yet lesser studied) skill de?cits for the population—the ability to communicate basic needs and wants.

Rather than focusing on what it would take to reduce associated problem behaviors, he conducted an in-depth advance assessment to determine what particular conditions led each child to make gestures when they wanted something, actions that could otherwise be replaced with spoken words.

Then he produced highly customized videos as models for the students, a practice that is still rare—especially by handheld iPod.

When he graduated in December 2010, his work had already garnered the attention of highly respected autism scholar Sam Odom, who recruited Plavnick for a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

“It was really important for me to have an impact on the kids,” Plavnick said. “I know that the research I conducted at MSU will shape all the things I do as I move forward.”

Real classrooms, real impact

Plavnick is a native of Lansing, a graduate of Sexton High School who began his undergraduate studies at MSU.

He left the area to volunteer with AmeriCorps and ended up working at a wilderness program for adjudicated youth, many of whom had learning disabilities or behavioral issues, in Utah. He found his way back to East Lansing after working as a special educator and consultant in Spokane, Wash. and Ann Arbor, Mich.

Starting the Ph.D. program, Plavnick knew the ?eld had an increasing pool of knowledge needed to deliver effective education programs for children with autism, especially as the rate of ASD diagnoses skyrocketed. He wanted to ?gure out how he could help more teachers put that information to work in real classrooms.

“Good interventions are complicated and they take time and training,” he said. “It’s so important not to make mistakes because if you do, students fall further behind.”

Mary Mariage’s special education classroom in Holt Public Schools is one of several locations where Plavnick, Ferreri and other MSU scholars have studied best practices for teaching children with ASD—and left lasting lessons for parents and teachers in the process.

Plavnick frequently engaged with a few of Mariage’s early childhood students over the course of his dissertation research, bringing fresh ideas from the science of applied behavior analysis.

“He transformed in a lot of ways the way we work with kids and the way we look at behavior,” said Mariage, a 24-year veteran of teaching (and wife of MSU associate professor of special education Troy Mariage).

“I’d have him move into the district if I could. He is absolutely brilliant with kids and brilliant with data.”

New potential, at MSU

At the Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute, Plavnick is one of three scholars currently completing a prestigious research fellowship funded by the federal Institute for Education Sciences (IES).

He is on a team evaluating research literature in order to identify the best, evidence-based practices for children with ASD. He’s also assisting with data collection and analysis on a cutting-edge, multi-state study that compares two forms of early interventions for preschoolers with autism.

By the end of the two-year training program, Plavnick should have his own line of fundable research well underway. He recently launched a new project that uses video modeling to teach social skills to adolescents with autism in a group setting.

“We think he’s going to be an emergent scholar in the ?eld,” said Odom, director of the FPG Institute and principal investigator on the IES post-doc. “We are very pleased he decided to move here and join us.”

Like many young scholars, Plavnick is a spouse and parent who must balance family and career obligations. Amazingly, he completed the Special Education Ph.D. Program at MSU in just three years.

“I think that says a lot about what can be done here,” said Ferreri, who as the only special education faculty member focused on autism has been working to build even more capacity for conducting ASD-related education research at Michigan State.

The College of Education hopes to begin accepting more doctoral students focused on ASD—of which there is a fast-growing pool—now that the Special Education Program offers a teaching endorsement with related courses in ASD (see page 6) and expects to hire another faculty member specializing in the area by this fall.

Plavnick will be looking for his own faculty position, taking his persistent talent and Spartan spirit for making a difference wherever he goes.

“He’s literally the guy that everyone wants to hire as soon as he arrives,” Ferreri said. “I think he is going to do amazing things. I can’t wait to see what he does.”

-Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute,