URI professor Michelle Flippin to study fathers’ role helping children with autism spectrum disorder

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KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 7, 2016 – One in 68 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of those, about 25 percent are never able to talk.

Studies have shown that early intervention with help from parents is key for children to develop their language skills. Research has focused on the role of mothers, but now a University of Rhode Island professor has turned her attention to fathers.

Michelle Flippin, of South Kingstown, assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders, recently received a $10,000 grant from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation to examine how fathers care for children with the disorder.

“To date, virtually no autism parent intervention research has included fathers,” says Flippin. “Fathers have interaction styles that are different from mothers and may influence outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorder in unique ways.”

Autism spectrum disorder impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with other people. There is no cure, but early diagnosis and treatment can improve a child’s relationships and life. Flippin estimates there are about 2,500 children in Rhode Island with the disorder.

Flippin says three fathers with children ages 3 to 5 will participate in the treatment study. She’ll observe how they interact with their children and also offer suggestions on how to improve communication. “We’re developing a coaching model,” she says. “We hope to come up with strategies that we create together.”

It’s important to study the role of fathers, says Flippin. More fathers are involved in childrearing, and 64 percent of children now live in two-parent households. Children whose parents are heavily involved in their upbringing, especially in the early years, are more likely to succeed later in life, she says.

Fathers have ways of interacting that are different than mothers. Flippin says fathers tend to use more direct language and more sophisticated syntax and vocabulary.

“The language a father uses with his child tends to be more direct than mother-child language,” she says. “That can be very beneficial. It takes the burden off the child to figure out what the parent is talking about.”

Fathers also tend to use more advanced vocabulary with children, she says. A mother might say, “Do you want to go up and down?” while a father might get to the point: “Use the lever to pivot.”

“Men don’t change their language as much as mothers to fit their children’s language,” says Flippin. “This higher level of vocabulary and syntax may get kids ready for language challenges outside the home.”

Play is different for fathers as well. Fathers are more rough-and-tumble, and that style can help children control their behavior, Flippin says. “Kids learn where the boundaries are, how far they can go with their dads. In this way, they learn to regulate themselves with play.”

Flippin says her study may help fathers be more effective models for their children with autism. “It’s surprising to me that we haven’t made more of an effort to involve fathers,” she says. “They have so much to offer in terms of language and play. We hope our study offers guidelines for fathers that are useful and beneficial for everyone.”

Flippin received her doctorate in speech and hearing sciences from the University of North Carolina in 2010. She teaches courses on language development and disorders, language analysis, and communication intervention for children with autism. She also has 10 years of clinical experience working with children who are on the autism spectrum.

An expert in her field, Flippin was featured in “Autistic Like Me,” a documentary about the role of fathers and male caregivers for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Her grant, called the New Investigators Research Grant, supports new scientists who have received their doctorate in communication sciences in the last five years and who are doing research in audiology or speech language pathology.

“Her work is innovative and cutting-edge,” says Dana Kovarksy, chair of URI’s Department of Communicative Disorders. “We’re very pleased to have her at URI. We think she has a bright future.”

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation is a charitable organization that advocates for children and adults with communication disorders. The group raises money from individuals, corporations and organizations to support research, graduate education and projects in communication sciences.

Pictured above: Michelle Flippin, of South Kingstown, assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders at URI, who recently received a $10,000 grant from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation to study how fathers care for children with autism spectrum disorder. Photo courtesy of Michelle Flippin.