Our Students in Action

Melaura Erickson

Better Communication for Children with Autism

Second year Developmental student Melaura Erickson works with children with autism at the Claremont Autism Center on campus. Her work not only delivers behavioral therapy to these children, but also assists in researching interventions designed to help students with autism. Her joint position there allows her firsthand knowledge about whether or not interventions are working and how they can be generalized in the child’s schools and homes.

Melaura explains, "One intervention [we're working on] is called the picture exchange communication system. It basically teaches children to communicate through pictures of desired objects, things they want." The picture exchange communication system research is being used in the clinic as well through parent training that teaches parents to implement the system in the home.

According to research findings, children with autism do not learn to communicate the way other children do and as a result they become frustrated and often do not develop verbal language as well as other children. By teaching them communication, says Melaura, behavioral problems also subside. Melaura is also working on this research project with Alissa Greenberg (a third year developmental student) and Dr. Marjorie Charlop (a professor at Claremont McKenna College).

For Melaura, choosing to study autism was something she always wanted to do. "I have always had an extreme compassion for individuals with disabilities. Given my experience with Dr. Ivar Lovaas (UCLA) and my increasing awareness through more research for children with autism, I have always been drawn to this field."

Another interesting research project that Melaura is currently working on looks at the idea that parents of children with autism are using interventions that have never been empirically validated with children. She hopes to answer the question, "What is it about parents who have children with autism that causes them to engage in these treatments at higher rates than those parents of children with Down Syndrome and other developmental disorders?"

Melaura's primary interest in her research is "to be able to help benefit many families’ lives. In applied [therapy or clinical] settings, you don’t have the time to affect as many individuals as you do when you are doing the research that will inform the lives of many families living with autism."