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Xavier Magazine | March 24, 2017

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Mindful Studies

By France Griggs Sloat

Barbara Neman turned to her son, Eli, as she was preparing for his fifth birthday party. His friends from preschool were about to arrive.

“Eli, would you please set the table?” she asked.

Eli took the plates, the ones decorated with bright balloons, and walked around the table.

“This one’s for Sam,” he said as he set the plate down. “This one’s for Sarah.” Neman stopped and looked at Eli. She was shocked.

Eli is autistic and had never spoken the names of any of his preschool classmates before. And the ones he was naming were from a new group he’d been seeing for only five weeks. Something, she realized, was working for this little boy with the dark brown hair and soft doe eyes. Despite the steady doses of special therapy and constant tutoring, so little had worked for him. Yet this simple act of conversation with people who weren’t present represented a major step forward in his social development.

There were other steps as well. For five weeks during that summer of 2002, he willingly left the car—and his mother—to join this new group of children participating in a research study at Xavier. By the end of the five weeks, he had begun making the important leap from focusing only on himself to comprehending the concept of “others,” a key element in a child’s eventual ability to interact socially as an adult.

Neman suspected the study was having a positive effect on Eli. Developed by a doctoral student in psychology, the study was a dissertation on the socialization of children with autism. The student, Kim Kroeger, developed a social skills modeling program to teach preschool-aged children with autism how to talk and play with each other. It appears she was onto something. By the end of the sessions, Eli and 24 other autistic children culled from the Cincinnati area all showed gains in their ability to interact socially in a group setting.

“It’s very tricky to teach a child to play with another kid,” Neman says. “I would pay for this.”

Kroeger’s research exemplifies the heart of Xavier’s first and only doctoral offering. The Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) program requires all students to choose projects that focus on one of three traditionally underserved populations—children, the elderly or the severely mentally ill. In Kroeger’s case, people received real services, and many benefited. One severely autistic 5-year-old girl who doesn’t speak actually waved goodbye to her mother, who tearfully said her daughter had never waved to her before.

“The program is in keeping with the Jesuit tradition and is very much service oriented,” says Janet Schultz, psychology professor and clinical director. “There was a desire to have a program of real strength that would also capture and put into practice the Jesuit ideals.”

That influence is evident in the spectrum of research by other students: personality traits and HIV risk in older adults; suicide threats and attempts among juvenile delinquents; severe mental illness and counseling.

One dissertation on the effects of video game violence and aggression won a University-wide graduate research competition this year. Kroeger’s dissertation in particular caught the attention of the psychology department as much for its potential to have a real impact on children as for its scope, its thoroughness and the extensive research on which it was based. Her proposal was awarded the mentoring and scholarship project chair. The $5,000 grant she received with the award, plus $2,000 from a local autism society, allowed her to plunge into her 18-month study.

Kroeger joined the program, which graduated its third class in May, after earning her bachelor’s degree from Clemson University and her master’s at Xavier. She is now completing her required internship at the prestigious Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University and will graduate this May. She says it was Xavier’s ideal of serving the underserved that drew her to the program, despite it being cheaper to enroll elsewhere.

“I was aware of what I would be paying in tuition. But it goes to the aspect of doing what you are told to do versus what you love to do. I was able to create this project and carry it out.”

At a time when other doctoral programs are experiencing declines, the University’s psychology program is gaining in popularity. The number of applicants this fall is up 300 percent compared with the program’s first year in 1997. Becoming accredited by the American Psychological Association accounts for some of that increase, but the numbers have risen steadily since 2000, when there were 69 applicants. The department received 118 applications for this fall.

Its reputation is expected to continue to spread as graduates like Kroeger enter the workforce and publish their research. She plans to incorporate her training model into a real program, having already presented it several times to local and national organizations and support groups. In her presentations, she explains how the children were placed in one of two groups—a structured play group and a study group exposed to her social skills modeling program. She videotaped the first and last sessions of the six groups, which each met three times a week for five weeks, and counted the social interactions among the children. Children with autism are unable to communicate with others. Traditional treatment has been one-on-one tutoring, not group interactions. But Kroeger found children in both groups increased their contacts with each other. But there were far more interactions among those in the study groups, who were shown how to socialize, than in the play groups.

Eli was in one of the study groups. He’s 6 years old now and still has trouble with his “I’s” and “you’s.” But his mother knows he grew a lot at Xavier and now wants to enroll him in a real program using Kroeger’s model. She hopes, for his sake, she doesn’t have to wait too long.

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