WACO, Texas (FOX 44) – A Baylor University assistant professor has received a $893,409 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop an innovative treatment model for children with autism and their siblings.

Jessica Akers, Ph.D. s the assistant professor of educational psychology in Baylor University’s School of Education. She has created an intervention program focusing on improving the interactions between siblings. 

Sibling SUCCESS: Supporting Unique Collaborative Care to Encourage Shared Success invites the siblings of children with autism or “special siblings” to collaborate and participate as a vital member of the intervention team. The university says that although behavioral interventions are highly effective for children with autism, these behavior programs – while including parents – do not address the importance the sibling relationship.

The university says that many siblings will take on some, if not all, caretaking responsibilities during the life of the individual with autism. Compared to other disabilities, individuals with autism have the lowest rates of independent living – with only 19 percent of adults with autism living independently from their families.

Dr. Akers says including special siblings in “earlier rather than later” conversations about future plans for their sibling with autism can help ensure appropriate preparations are made. In addition to properly planning for the future, the experience of growing up as a special sibling can be positively impacted by increasing their access to information about autism, opportunities to interact with other special siblings and a decrease in challenging behavior in the sibling with autism.

This project holds professional and personal interest for Dr. Akers. She grew up with a brother and sister with developmental disabilities, and she is passionate about her work with children with disabilities and their special siblings.

The university says that this program will provide three levels of training and support related to including siblings within behavioral interventions:

  • Level 1 will be an extended program targeting the reduction of challenging behavior and increase in prosocial behaviors;
  • Level 2 will be a four-week program promoting positive interactions between siblings; and
  • Level 3 will be a one-day workshop to teach siblings how to use basic behavioral tools to enhance the quality of interactions with their siblings with autism.

In addition to providing these direct services, Akers and her team will provide a professional development workshop on collaborating with siblings to practitioners working with children with autism. The university says that over the next three years, Akers and her team will use the information from this project to develop a socially valid service model for promoting collaboration with special siblings.