SHU Receives $1.2 Million Fed Grant for Literacy Needs of Autistic Children

FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Sacred Heart University has received a five-year $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs to help improve reading and writing for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Professor Rhea Paul, chair of the Department of Communication Disorders and director of the graduate program in speech-language pathology (SLP), applied for the grant and worked all spring with the Office of Sponsored Programs to submit the grant. The grant will fund Paul’s proposal, “Inter-professional Training in Enhancing Symbolic Communication for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” over the course of five years. The project focuses on interdisciplinary approaches to enhancing literacy for both verbal and pre-verbal students with ASD. College of Health Professions faculty members Heather KuhaneckEllen MassucciSheelagh Schlegel and Isabelle Farrington College of Education adjunct faculty member Lettitia Long are also working on the project.

The majority of the grant funds are earmarked for scholarships. Students in SHU’s SLP and occupational therapy graduate programs who are committed to working with children with ASD in grades K-12 can apply for the scholarships. Four SHU students from each program will be chosen yearly for five years, for a total of 40 students over the life of the grant. They will work on enhancing reading and writing development for schoolchildren with ASD using interdisciplinary methods to aid in literacy development.

The planning phase will continue through December, Paul said. Faculty from the College of Health Professions and the Farrington College of Education will develop the curriculum and choose the scholarship recipients. The eight chosen scholars will be mentored during the spring 2021 semester and then will participate in three summer seminars taught by project-affiliated faculty. In the fall of 2021, they will have a semester of supervised fieldwork experience at Cooperative Educational Services (CES), a non-profit organization in Trumbull that provides Fairfield County schools with support for students in grades K-12. The SHU students will apply the practice and knowledge they gained from the seminars as they work with children affected by ASD.

“Our long-standing relationship with CES really made this grant possible,” Paul said. “Our collaboration with them is a very important part of this project.”

According to the grant, the effectiveness of the SHU students’ approaches will be evaluated with qualitative and quantitative measures throughout the project to assess scholars’ knowledge and students’ progress.

How the grant came to be

During the spring 2020 semester, Paul went to France on sabbatical but then had to turn around and fly back home due to the pandemic. She found herself with no classes to teach, so she decided to apply for an OSEP grant; something she had long wanted to do.

She looked up the grant opportunity and realized she had to get to work quickly: it was already mid-March, and the proposal was due at the end of May. “I wrote every day, all day, for eight weeks,” said Paul, who worked closely with Nina Yolen in the Office of Sponsored Programs to hit the “Submit” button on May 29.

The good news arrived in September. “I was surprised,” Paul said about SHU obtaining the grant, especially since grant officials had told her the number of grants awarded would be significantly fewer than had been awarded in previous years.

Paul said she’s excited to get started and is grateful to all the faculty in the College of Health Professions and Farrington College of Education for their support and guidance. 


About Sacred Heart University

As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers more than 80 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s nine colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Social Work; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; the Dr. Susan L. Davis, R.N., & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 386 Colleges–2021 Edition, “Best in the Northeast” and Best Business Schools–2020 Edition. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theater. www.sacredheart.edu


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