Dr. Jill Locke’s research focuses on school-based social skills interventions for children with ASD. Her research highlights the importance of the intervention setting and how to match school resources to the needs of the child. Successful school intervention programs are ones that can be maintained over time, and usually have a better fit between the school, teacher, and child. Dr. Locke has won early career awards from the National Institute of Mental Health, FARFund, and Autism Science Foundation.

How did she get started? Dr. Locke has a cousin with ASD and also has worked with children with ASD in her own classroom during her time as a preschool teacher. She was motivated to go to graduate school after seeing a three-year-old with autism isolated because of the child’s intense restricted interests. Dr. Locke attended graduate school in Los Angeles where she trained with Dr. Connie Kasari, developing school-based programs for children with ASD with the goal of improving friendships and relationships for children with ASD.

I sat down with Dr. Locke over coffee at the International Society for Autism Research 2018 annual meeting to discuss the benefits and challenges of working within schools to improve ASD services.

What are the benefits of working within public schools systems?

All of the large intervention trials I worked on during graduate school and postdoctoral training were in public schools. I’ve worked in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, and now Seattle. Working with public schools, you can help children from all backgrounds, especially those from under-resourced settings. For those children without resources, their primary intervention programs occur in the public school.

What is unique or different about working in Seattle Public Schools compared to LA, Philadelphia or NYC?

In Seattle Public Schools (SPS), programs include children with all different types of needs- children with ASD, other developmental disabilities or those that are medically fragile. SPS typically has a 3 staff to 13 child ratio. In contrast, in LA and Philadelphia, children were often in ASD-only classrooms. Being in a mixed environment in Seattle makes delivering autism-specific interventions more challenging, making it particularly important to consider how to manage teaching resources.

What I try to do is match the intervention strategies to each child’s needs. But also because of the staff to student ratio, I try to focus on strategies that will benefit the whole classroom. One strategy that works with the whole classroom is reinforcement schedules and visual schedules. We have evidence that these schedules help children with ASD transition from one activity to another. The schedules also help all children make sense of the classroom schedule and environment. Most importantly, I let the teachers and teams guide the conversation and consultation so I know that the strategies “fit” and can be maintained.

What are the most common resources that you provide for teachers or the most common training the school teams ask for?

I think that one of the most important areas is setting appropriate expectations. Often a task needs more thought and individualization for it to be successful. Some children might have a limited amount of “mental resources”. A child might be able to do 10 math problems, but the effort to sit at his desk, attend to the worksheet, and write with a pencil might use up his mental resources for the hour. I help teachers think about what the appropriate expectation is so the child can meet their goals for the day. Correctly adapting expectations sets the child up for success.

I also work with teachers and staff on using direct and specific language. Too often we say to a child “stop that” and it is not really clear what you are asking the child to “stop” doing. Rather, if the child is jumping up and down and you want them to stop, you should say, “Feet on the floor,” instead of “Stop that,” which is much more specific. Being specific about what behaviors you are encouraging or discouraging helps children with ASD understand your communication. This specificity also is true for praise and positive reinforcement. Instead of saying “Great job!”; you might want to say “Great job helping your friend” or “You’re are doing great sitting still” or “I like your quiet hands.”

Visual supports also are very helpful in the classroom. Sometimes a picture or a gesture makes communication clear. Visual supports are really important as some individuals with ASD say pictures are their first language.

What are you currently working on at UW?

My work has transitioned to adolescents and young adults with ASD. There are new challenges that emerge when children with ASD become young adults. Often times, they are struggling with the same issues that every college student is; they just experience these problems through the lens of ASD.

A lot of my work is currently with the MOSSAIC (Mentoring, Organizational and Social Supports for Autism Inclusion on Campus) program at UW, which is an extension of the University of Montana MOSSAIC program. MOSSAIC is a peer mentoring program for students with ASD to help enrich and support them through their college experience. Currently, there are about 80 students with ASD on the UW Campus; this is out of 40,000 UW students. Right now, there is a 10% graduate rate for students with ASD, which is much lower than typically-developing students. MOSSAIC creates a community of students with ASD through hosting social events. MOSSAIC also provides students with ASD with the “hidden curriculum” of how to be successful in college. Sometimes, we assist MOSSAIC students in getting access to academic support; sometimes it is helping instructors connect with a student with ASD. MOSSAIC also has an advisory board of individuals with ASD to help with programmatic decisions to do what’s best for our students with ASD.

What are the unique challenges of college students with ASD?

Challenges include executive functioning (mental processing), self-advocacy (representing themselves), and appropriate conduct (i.e. appropriate behaviors and boundary setting). We work on the challenge of participating in social interactions in the classroom (team or partner based assignments) as well as independent living (dorm activities or sharing communal living space).

What new research areas are you excited about?

Adolescents with ASD should be receiving a high school transition plan that targets steps to independence and additional schooling (if appropriate). This transition plan is a critical need. We’ve found that most students in MOSSAIC don’t remember their transition plan and report that no one has ever worked with them on what they wanted when transitioning out of high school. I am working to address this need—to figure out what are the best ways to create a transition plan within the high schools, but also incorporate the voice of the adolescent who is transitioning and their parent. As well, we need to assess if the plans actually work and what parts best help the student.

Thanks to Jill!