COE experts receive $250,000 grant to expand autism services statewide

The University of North Texas Kristin Farmer Autism Center and the UNT-based Texas Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program recently received a $250,000 grant from the state to provide in-home training and support to families that have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The new A+HIPPY program, the first of its kind in Texas, will help bring UNT’s evidence-based autism intervention practices to low-income families across the state, including rural areas that often have limited or no access to autism services.

“Texas has one of the highest percentages of children with ASD in the nation, and there is a huge demand for services,” said Kevin Callahan, executive director of the UNT Kristin Farmer Autism Center. “When you look at the number of children the state has served in other autism programs, the numbers are relatively small. This new program will serve 100 families by the end of this first year. So it’s already rapidly advancing the number of children being served.”

HIPPY is an international program that sends trained home visitors, often parent-alumni of the HIPPY program themselves, into the community to meet with educationally underserved parents of 3- to 5-year-olds and empower them to become involved in all aspects of their children’s education. The home visitors are armed with a 30-week curriculum that focuses on school readiness and parent involvement.

Callahan said partnering autism services with the HIPPY program will be particularly advantageous to families with children on the spectrum, since early intervention is critical for helping these children live fuller lives.

“For children with autism, early in-home engagement can lead to greater success in school and less stress for parents and other family members,” he said.

Callahan said new and current HIPPY home visitors will train with professionals from KFAC both in person and via phone and Skype to learn techniques that will help them connect with children on the spectrum, including behavior analysis principles, structures, routines and prompting. KFAC’s professionals will also be available to confer with in-home visitors when they encounter challenges.

Carla Mowell, Texas’ HIPPY director, said the state’s program currently serves about 2,900 families at 11 sites across Texas. With this grant, she plans to grow the number of children with autism served from about 30 to 100. UNT’s A+HIPPY was modeled after a successful program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Texas HIPPY will expand the scope of services by using technology for remote training of staff members on autism best practices. This will allow in-home visitors to reach a larger number of families in need of autism services, she said.

“We have seen a growing need in our sites for services helping children with autism, but were concerned because we felt a little out of our depth – we know early childhood education, but children with autism have special needs that our staff wasn’t trained to handle,” Mowell said. “We didn’t want to turn kids away, but at the same time we don’t want to provide services that aren’t helpful. That brought a sense of urgency and showed us how great the need is for these services.”

The next step, Mowell said, is to identify families across the state who qualify for the A+HIPPY program. The HIPPY model is grassroots, with coordinators at the 11 sites statewide recruiting door to door and visiting area schools, daycare centers, churches and parks to initially connect with parents.

Callahan said once the program is up and running, the in-home visitors will not only provide invaluable autism services, but also inform families about other services available to them that they might not be aware of. The ultimate goal is to create training models and resources that can be used by HIPPY programs nationwide, and also raise awareness among all families about the disorder, Mowell said.

“We’ll have parent meetings and field trips where parents of kids with autism will be right there with parents of kids who are not on the spectrum. So it will be great for the parents of neurotypical children and children on the spectrum to interact and reach a greater mutual understanding,” she said. “Education has come a long way in incorporating children with special needs into the general population, but in the greater community, parents with a child with autism are often judged, with people thinking, ‘You need to control your child or discipline your child,’ and that’s just not the case.”