Past Research

Spencer, T. D., Kajian, M., Petersen, D. B., & Bilk, N. (2012). Effects of an individualized narrative intervention on children’s storytelling and comprehension skills. Accepted for publication in Journal of Early Intervention.

Narrative skills that are important for preschoolers include retelling stories, telling personal stories, and answering questions about stories. Narrative abilities form the foundation of reading comprehension. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effect of an individually delivered language intervention on the narrative skills of preschoolers with developmental disabilities. Five Head Start preschoolers participating in special education received 24 sessions of intervention each lasting 10-15 minutes. A multiple baseline, multiple probe experimental design was used to investigate the effects of the narrative intervention, which incorporated visual supports (e.g., icons and pictures) and retell and personal storytelling practice, on story retells, personal stories, and story comprehension. Improvements on all three measures were related to the intervention. Parents and teachers reported that the storytelling activities were engaging, enjoyable, and produced improvements in the children’s language skills. The featured intervention offers an example of a tier 3 language intervention for classroom-implementation.


Spencer, T. D., Kajian, M., Weddle, S., & Petersen, D. B. (2013). Differentiated tier two language intervention and a dynamic approach to screening: A mixed methods experimental study.
The purpose of this study was to examine the effect of a differentiated small group narrative intervention on children’s language skills. Children from three Head Start classrooms participated in 3 sessions of the large group intervention (Tier 1). Using a dynamic approach, we identified about 25% of the children who showed limited response to the large group intervention. These children were randomly assigned to small group (1:4) narrative intervention (Tier 2) or business as usual. We employed a multiple baseline design across three groups of children who received intervention and embedded this design within a small, randomized control group design. Treatment children received intervention twice a week for about 18 sessions and linguistic targets were differentiated for each child individually. Their language growth was probed weekly using a progress monitoring tool for language. After four weeks, one student had not made progress. From that point on, he received his intervention in a more intense fashion for Tier 3 (one-on-one) due to his more significant language needs. Following an RTI framework, we were able to demonstrate language improvements for all the children who participated in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions.
Spencer, T. D., Goldstein, H., Spencer, E., & Sherman, A. (2013). Assessment of Story Comprehension (ASC): Development and validation of a curriculum-based measure for preschoolers.
The Assessment of Story Comprehension (ASC) was designed to help language practitioners and teachers identify which children may benefit from additional language intervention and to monitor children’s progress once intervention has begun. The ASC includes nine stories each with a comparable set of questions representing several dimensions of language comprehension (e.g., prediction, recall, inferencing, and vocabulary learning). To serve as parallel forms, each story has equivalent story structure, language complexity and length. All stories have content that is relatable to preschoolers to reduce the confounding effects of background knowledge. The ASC represents an authentic approach to language assessment. An iterative development process was used to establish the ASC’s technical adequacy. The ASC has standardized administration procedures in which examiners follow a simple administration script. Administration lasts about 3 minutes per story. Administration is simple (fidelity is consistently above 90% correct). Scoring is also standardized using story specific scoring guides. Scoring reliability is adequate (about 90% inter-scorer agreement). 
Weddle, S. A., Zitting, L., & Spencer, T. D. (2013, Oct.). Tiered Language Interventions in Head Start Preschools: An Implementation and Efficacy Study. Presented at the Arizona Association for School Psychologists.
Story Champs is a tiered narrative intervention curriculum and has been examined in multiple efficacy studies (Spencer & Slocum, 2010; Spencer, Petersen, Slocum & Allen, in press; Spencer, Bilyk, Kajian, & Petersen, in press; Weddle, Spencer, Kajian, & Petersen, in preparation); however, researchers and clinicians served as primary interventionists. Before advancing Story Champs toward a full-scale efficacy/effectiveness trial, it is imperative to examine its usability, feasibility, and impact on children’s language when delivered by end users. This project investigated the efficacy of the tiered narrative intervention program when delivered by Head Start teachers and teaching assistants. In addition, the feasibility of the program in Head Start classrooms was examined. Results indicate statistically significant differences between the treatment group (3 classrooms) and the control group (3 classrooms) on narrative retell and story comprehension measures. In addition, teachers implemented the intervention with adequate fidelity (Mean=88.4%) and reported that their students enjoyed the intervention. Obstacles to smooth implementation included limited time and staff turnover.
Electroencephalography measures (mirror neutrons) of social attention and skills in children with autism

Based on the effectiveness of ABA social skills training and the atypical mirror neurons (MN’s) recently observed in children with autism while watching social interactions, we hypothesize that ABA intervention might be correlated with enhanced mu suppression in autism. Specifically, if improvement in social skills is a function of increased activation of MN’s, we should find greater mu suppression after ABA training compared to before training.

It is expected that ABA treatment will have significant effects on mu wave suppression. While the autism control group is not expected to demonstrate changes in mu suppression, and the neurotypical control group is expected to show little or no change, the experimental autism group is expected to show significant increase in mu wave suppression.Such a difference would be taken to reflect the involvement of MN dysfunction in impaired social function in autism as well as the efficacy of ABA treatment.

It is expected that training of social skills is a function of training the MN’s to respond appropriately to actions and intentions of others. Significant findings of this study would be of sufficient theoretical and clinical importance to warrant attention of the research and the clinical communities and would warrant publication in a top peer-reviewed journal.

This project began in 2008 with initial funding from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and in collaboration with Chad Woodruff, PhD from the Department of Psychology and Andrew Gardner, PhD. Undergraduate and graduate students from Northern Arizona University also participated. 

Stimulus equivalence and Spanish/English care providers of children with autism

The present study proposes to use stimulus equivalence procedures (via Match to sample) to teach relationships between English and Spanish language stimuli to children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders who live with monolingual Spanish speaking parents in the home and participate with monolingual English speaking teachers at school.

Each child’s receptive language in English (via the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test – 4th edition) and in Spanish (via the Test de Vocabulario en Imagenes Peabody) will be tested prior to training.

Next, MTS training procedures for reflexive and symmetrical relations between pictures and Spanish written words (across 3 stimulus classes) will be conducted by a parent in the home setting (Spanish word to picture).

MTS training procedures for reflexive and symmetrical relations between pictures and English written words (across the same 3 stimulus classes) will be conducted by an English language teacher in the classroom setting.

Emergent relations (transitivity) will then be probed after training by researchers (two independent observers collecting data) with reliability of at least 30% of all sessions.

The results of this initial investigation will be discussed in terms of possible improvements (teaching explicit relations across languages, stimulus classes, and care providers) in bilingual pedagogy and second language acquisition with children diagnosed with ASD.

This project began in January of 2008 under the supervision of Andrew Gardner, PhD (Department of Psychology and Institute for Human Development) and teachers from Flagstaff Cooperative Preschool and Puente de Hozho Bilingual Magnet School, as well as undergraduate and graduate students. 

Cortisol levels of children with disabilities during functional analyses of problem behavior

HPA axis activation and physiological stress/anxiety response, resulting in increased release of stress hormones, shows positive correlation with environmental conditions in which problem behavior is present/increases in autistic individuals.

Therefore, our research questions are:

  • Is HPA axis activation involved in problem behavior in autistic individuals during functional analysis, and if so, how (what is the correlation/relationship)?
  • Do autistic individuals differ from typically-developing (or non-autistic individuals?) individuals on measures of stress/anxiety response under conditions of a functional analysis?

Therefore, we predict that HPA axis activation and physiological stress/anxiety response, resulting in increased release of stress hormones, will show a positive correlation with environmental conditions in which problem behavior is present/increases in autistic individuals.

We predict that the conditions included in a functional analysis of problem behavior will allow us to identify under which context these correlations occur for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

This project is under the supervision of Andrew Gardner, PhD. and in collaboration with Melissa Birkett, PhD from the Department of Psychology. Undergraduate and graduate students from Northern Arizona University will also participate.

“I” in the IEP”, is being submitted to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), CFDA Number 84.324I, application number NCSER-06-10

Abstract: “I” in the IEP, $25,000, Subcontract with the University of Hawaii who was awarded the grant (Institute of Education Sciences (IES), CFDA number 84.324I, application number NCSER-06-10). The AzUCD is one of three sites (Hawaii, Alaska and Arizona) participating in this research project. The purpose of the proposed project is to develop and obtain preliminary evidence of the effectiveness of two intervention models. These models are designed to equip educators, administrators, and parents with necessary tools to support students with disabilities from indigenous cultures in participating in their own IEP meetings through a culturally relevant process. Staff from the AzUCD will collect data from high schools serving Native American students with high incidence disabilities.

The AzUCD team is involved in identifying sites, obtaining IRB approvals, and coordinating with the team from Hawaii in scheduling training for participating high schools. This continuing project is under the supervision of Dr. Karen Applequist. 

A preference assessment of qualities of attention delivered from care providers to children: An analysis of "Saying versus doing"

Idiosyncratic qualities of attention have been shown to influence behavior (Kodak, Northup & Kelley, 2007). However, few studies have systematically identified individual qualities of attention desired by typically developing children.

Preference assessments have typically been used to identify preferences for tangible items and edibles (Fisher et al., 1992) and are typically completed in vivo (versus verbal report).

The current study used a preference assessment to identify and compare verbal and actual preferences for specific qualities of attention through a two phase study with three children.

 Three males, ages 12, 10 and 5, and one female, 9 years of age participated. The female participant was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and engaged in self-injurious behavior and the 12 year old male participant was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. The other two males were typically developing.

In Phase 1, verbal choices for qualities of attention were recorded. In Phase 2, each child was presented with the same choices (via concurrent operants) in vivo with a parent in a clinic setting.

Time allocation was the dependent variable and 30% of all sessions included IOA. Some of the qualities of attention presented to each child included: proximity, physical contact, vocal intonation, reprimands versus positive vocalizations, type of physical contact, and schedules of reinforcement for their choices.

The results are discussed in terms of differences in what children may say and what they might choose in vivo, as well as a methodology to accurately identify children’s preferences for specific qualities of attention.

This continuing project is under the supervision of Andrew Gardner, PhD

Public attitudes towards and understanding of people with disabilities
This project resulted a survey, the Multidimensional Attitudes Scale Toward Persons with Disabilities (MAS), which measured the attitudes of college students and their understanding of people with disabilities.
Arizona Muscular Dystrophy Surveillance and Research Program (AMDSRP)

This project had the following specific aims:

  • generate population-based prevalence and incidence rates for DBMD in the United States with particular attention to differences in rates over time and by race/ethnicity;
  • identify the early signs and symptoms of DBMD;
  • describe the medical and social services received and quality of life of families of patients with DBMD and whether these vary by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status; and
  • investigate whether the severity or course of DBMD is influenced by variation in type of care received and by type of mutation identified
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Autism/DD Surveillance Grant
The program was an expansion of the Autism Spectrum Surveillance Program, and worked to ensure that the resources for special education services and other services are made available to meet the needs of Arizona’s children with developmental disabilities and their families.
Promoting Health in Adolescents with Muscular Dystrophy

The objectives of this project were:

  • to assess variation in the use and duration of assistive technology (AT) devices in a population of boys with Duchenne and Becker Muscular Dystrophy (DBMD)
  • to investigate the effects of AT devices on the promotion of health, well-being, and quality of life