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CHANGING THE WORLD What your investment in UT makes possible About 1 percent of the world’s population— including more than 3.5 million Americans —has an autism-spectrum disorder.


Working on separate continents, two professors and their students join forces to improve lives for people with autism. By M. Yvonne Taylor


ore than


years ago , before the internet and email ,

special-education researcher Mark O’Reilly received a letter in his native Ireland. The dispatch marked the beginning of a long, fruitful professional relationship, one

that has contributed greatly to the adoption of innovative strategies to help the

millions of children and families struggling with the spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders collectively known as autism.

Above: Recent PhD graduate Cindy Gevarter simultaneously presents research to fellow special education doctoral students at UT and at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Opposite: Now in its third year, 40 Hours for the Forty Acres is a fun opportunity to support all things UT. CREDITS: Christina Murray

(4); Callie Richmond

56 |The

Jeff Sigafoos, at the time a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, had come across a reference to one of O’Reilly’s papers, one he could not access through the university’s library. “So I wrote to Mark and asked for a reprint,” says Sigafoos. As it turned out, O’Reilly’s wife had worked with Sigafoos previously in Minnesota. Fast-forward to 2001, when Sigafoos joined UT’s College of Education to establish a master’s and PhD program in autism studies. Increased funding allowed for the hiring of another professor, and O’Reilly joined his colleague at UT. Though Sigafoos moved to New Zealand in 2005, O’Reilly now chairs the Department of Special Education, where he holds the Audrey Rogers Myers Centennial Professorship in Education—and where the professors’ cooperative research and teaching continue today.

Partnerships like this one can be incredibly valuable for students and for an entire field of study. For instance, when investigating how best to treat problem behaviors associated with developmental disabilities, Sigafoos notes that assessment and intervention are often viewed as somewhat separate activities. O’Reilly has been a leader in integrating the two, however, and Sigafoos extended his ideas to examine whether teaching a person better communication skills could help. “We then started to look at other issues,” he says, “such as teaching social skills and using technology to educate people.” “We have different expertise that can overlap,” says O’Reilly. “It’s a nice meld, and students benefit from that.” A combined cohort of about 10 doctoral students is enrolled each year in the special education programs at UT and at Victoria

University of Wellington in New Zealand, where Sigafoos is a professor. Like O’Reilly and Sigafoos, the students communicate across oceans via telephone, e-mail, and Skype, and present their findings through video links and the occasional international trip. They are able to share and compare teaching and research insights as well as practical knowledge they gain in their hands-on, in-home work with families. “The international collaborations are unique in that they allow students to work not only with leaders in the fields of autism and special education, but to work with leaders within our specific subsets or research areas,” says recent graduate Cindy Gevarter, PhD ’15, now an assistant professor and program coordinator of applied behavior analysis at Manhattanville College in New York. She has explored ways to increase the vocalizations of individuals with autism through assistive technology such as speech-generating devices. “Dr. Sigafoos’ team researches augmentative and alternative communication systems, as I do,” Gevarter says. “Knowing what questions they are asking and exploring helped me think about where my own research should be going next.” In preparing students for careers in clinical settings and in academia, the benefits of collaborations like this can’t be overstated, Sigafoos says. “Students gain ongoing feedback at every stage of the study, from conceptualization to practical aspects of collecting the data to the write-up stage, which makes a high-quality project more likely. They also get the opportunity to receive multiple perspectives and learn from each other.” Over the years, the schools’ shared research and training have had a widespread impact. Many of Mark O’Reilly the assessment and intervention strategies they have researched—such as identifying why a child might be engaging in challenging behaviors and then tailoring an improvement strategy for him and his family— are now widely used by those who work with people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Graduates of both programs have gone on to hold faculty positions at many other universities, where they can further share their specialized knowledge. “Students keep the international relationships they’ve made throughout their careers,” says O’Reilly. “It makes the world a smaller place.” Small world or not, when an estimated 1 percent of the population worldwide has an autism-spectrum disorder, the advances these faculty and students are making have truly world-changing significance. Learn about the College of Education, its research, and how you can contribute to it at




ant a quick and easy way to make a positive impact at the university this spring? Consider participating in 40 Hours for the Forty Acres. Now in its third year, the mini-campaign is a team-spirited challenge to all alumni, friends, and students to support what they love at UT over Show your Longhorn a 40-hour period. In a flurry of social media pride over a 40-hour posts, emails, and phone calls, period April 12 and 13. plus a student event on campus, this year’s edition will kick off April 12 at 4 a.m. CST and run through 8 p.m. on April 13. More than 2,900 people contributed nearly $400,000 during last year’s 40 hours—far exceeding the $140,000 goal—in support of student organizations, faculty research, scholarships, and everything in between. Riding that momentum, the university hopes to substantially exceed last year’s total. If 40 Hours for the Forty Acres has proved anything it’s that the Longhorn community loves a challenge. With that in mind, UT is introducing some friendly competition to the campaign, along with some big payoffs. A challenge pool, underwritten by gifts from alumni and friends who are recognized as Longhorn Leaders for their key support, will fund rewards for colleges, schools, and other units that win various challenges throughout the 40 hours. For example, a $1,000 bonus might go to whichever student organization receives the most donations in a given hour. While the larger colleges and schools tend to bring in more dollars—the McCombs School of Business was last year’s top performer—40 Hours for the Forty Acres is all about participation, and smaller schools have put up some impressive numbers. At the School of Nursing, for example, Dean Alexa Stuifbergen was so proud last year of her students and their enthusiasm that on the second day, she committed to donate an additional $5 for each one who gave before the deadline. The school ultimately raised $12,875 from 161 donors. Learn more at and come back to the site April 12-13 to help propel the campaign past last year’s total.

Changing the World is produced by the University Development Office. Please send your feedback and suggestions to editor Jamey Smith at For more news and information about giving to UT, visit

s e p t e m b e r | o c t o b e r 2011

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Changing the World - Mar-Apr 2016  

Featured in The Alcalde, Mar/Apr 2016

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