May 28, 2018 | Katherine Adams
The Clear Creek I.S.D. Special Education Parent Teacher Association honored University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Associate Professors of Behavior Analysis, Sarah Lechago and Jennifer Fritz, with the 2017-18 Star Award for their Connecting the Dots program at a ceremony on May 9 at Clear Springs High School in League City.
The Connecting the Dots program, which Lechago and Fritz developed in 2016, is designed to address the connection between communication deficits and problem behavior in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in a holistic manner. “My expertise is in communication, so I approached Jennifer, and we developed a caregiver training program. Current models for handling these problems are insular, but we believe that negative behavior often results because the child can’t communicate appropriately,” Lechago said. “The sessions we conduct with the caregivers of children in the Connecting the Dots program highlight the relationship between communication deficits and problem behaviors. It’s really about connecting the dots between those two problems and finding a solution.”
To qualify for the program, children must be between the ages of two and 18 years and be diagnosed with ASD. The Connecting the Dots program is fully funded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Autism Grant Program.
Lechago is founder and director of UHCL’s Verbal Behavior Clinic. Fritz is founder and director of the Severe Behavior Disorders Research Clinic, and both clinics are part of the UHCL Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
“In a training session, a therapist is there to coach a parent and child through a particular skill,” Fritz said. “We’re teaching communication in order to reduce problem behavior. The therapist explains and role-plays the skill with the parent, then the parent learns to implement it with the child.” She added that when caregivers understand the connection between communication and problem behavior, there’s often a decrease in the behavior. “We’re focusing on communicating better, rather than handling the behavior through reactionary measures after it has already occurred,” she said.
Lechago said that at first, she hoped to use the Connecting the Dots program to help one family at a time, and was very surprised to be recognized at this scale. “We are very happy to be recognized by people who appreciate the continued potential impact of our program,” she said.
“There’s a responsibility in this,” Fritz said. “We will find ways to maintain the program and make an impact for more families. We have parents who say the help they’ve received has improved their marriage and family. There are many avenues for growth.”
Fritz and Lechago were nominated for the award by a parent participating in the Connecting the Dots program. “We have a number of board certified behavior analysts who work with us and who are the face of this program,” Fritz said. “Amber Groat, Rachel Hoffman and Megan Vosters are critical to the program’s success."
"We also have excellent therapists who help these families, including UHCL graduate students Kelsey Campbell Leadingham, Justin Hunt, Adriana Marsiglia and Brittany Zey," she added. "We need people to sensitively and completely implement our program, and it’s been effective because families feel respected and cared for.”
For more information about UHCL’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, visit www.uhcl.edu/autism-center/