Communication between parents and children with autism is the focus of Duquesne Professor

Helping children with autism to develop their behavior by improving communications between them and their parents is a goal for Duquesne University School of Education Professor Dr. Rachel Robertson.

Robertson, a board certified behavior analyst and assistant professor of special education, is particularly hoping to serve as a resource for African-American families that may be deterred from participating in studies and resource groups.

Robertson is asking families to let her visit them in their homes for about 30 minutes at the time of day when the child with autism is most likely to have problem behavior. After observing the situation, Robertson would work with the family to develop a different way of communicating with the autistic child that may head off a “meltdown”—improving behavior of the child and reducing stress levels at home.

“What we see is that difficult behavior like tantrums is what works best in getting their point across,” Robertson said. Her experience, which includes working as a fellow at The Watson Institute in Sewickley and the Vanderbilt Behavior Research Center at Vanderbilt University, shows that by being very clear and upfront about expectations, parents and caregivers may sideline difficult behavior.

She advises parents on being clear and providing children lists of what their outing will involve. “It’s helpful for kids with autism to know what to expect,” she said. “For instance, if they think they will get candy because they are going to the store, they need extra input to be really clear upfront on what’s going to happen. If they are going to the grocery store, the bank and Toys R Us, it’s helpful for the kids to know that. Once they do, they can start to understand and anticipate that this is what’s going to happen.”

Many people with autism also suffer from anxiety, particularly in unexpected situations. “As connections become less clear to them, they tend to become anxious. To latch onto the predictability and anticipate what’s happening is really important for them. Routines are calming to make the chaotic world understandable. Rigidity and intense interest is often characteristic of autism. It’s important that parents and caregivers try to enter their children’s world as a baby step to getting them into the bigger world.”

For instance, children with Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form along the autism spectrum, may resent “top-down” decisions by parents and might respond better to adults seeking their input.

By visiting with families for about 30 minutes per day over several weeks, Robertson hopes to understand the child’s behavior and offer parents effective strategies.

For more information on participating in this work, funded by a $9,000 Faculty Development award and $2,000 from the Sizemore Urban Initiative, email Robertson at or call 412.396.4478.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic research universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of more than 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability.