UT Speech and Hearing Center offers free communication training for parents of children with autism

Michael Hankins

UT Speech and Hearing Center will begin this year’s first free training services for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder next week with the goal of teaching them how to improve their kids’ social interactions and language skills.

The training program, known as Project SKILLS ­­— Skills and Knowledge of Intervention for Language Learning Success — is composed of eight sessions for children from 12 months to 10 years old and their parents. Graduate-level clinicians guide parents through one-on-one sessions or group  sessions with their child, either in person or through video conferencing.

According to Madhu Sundarrajan, co-director of Project SKILLS, these sessions give parents resources to continue working with their kids at home.

“Our primary goal at the sessions is to train the parents,” Sundarrajan said. “The idea is that parents spend most of their time with their child, (so) training them to work with their child exponentially increases the amount of time families have with our services.”

Traditional special education programs do not offer parents as many opportunities to take an active part in their child’s education, Project SKILLS co-director Jessica Franco said.

“You have these kids (in school) all day, but you don’t have the parents coming in for training,” Franco said. “Even kids at schools with good services can benefit from doing something like this after school, because their parents are learning too.”

Project SKILLS has received funding from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board since its creation in Fall 2016. The funding has been renewed for this upcoming year to help expand the program.

The number of participating families is expected to grow to 150 from the 100 that participated in 2016. The program’s increasing popularity can be attributed to its flexibility, Franco said.

“Our online sessions are also unique because they allow us to reach families in rural parts of Texas that typically don’t have access to these programs,” Sundarrajan said.

RJ Franzen, finance and biochemistry junior, said in his experience having a sister with autism spectrum disorder, parents should try to improve their child’s behavior when they’re young.

“Tics like lack of eye contact, lack of social awareness and lack of empathy can be partially remedied if they’re caught early,” Franzen said. “With my sister, when we started to notice these bad habits, we got her a social tutor. It definitely helped. Her habits are much less pronounced now.”