Leading the Vanguard: Ann Kaiser

Ann Kaiser, Ph.D.

Ann Kaiser, Ph.D., is a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) investigator and Susan Gray Chair in Education and Human Development and professor of Special Education and Psychology. Kaiser’s areas of research interest include early language intervention in children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or language impairments, and strategies for involving caregivers as partners in early intervention.

In the interview below, Kaiser shares what inspires her research in developmental disabilities, what she’s learned through her work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps her achieve her goals.

Tell me about your attraction to developmental disabilities research. Do you have a personal connection to disability?

My doctoral training at the University of Kansas focused on language and social communication in typically developing children in classrooms from an applied behavioral perspective. During an NIH post-doctoral fellowship, I proposed to get additional training in child linguistics and to study the social interactions of children with severe disabilities in residential treatment in order to apply some of the established child language interactional and linguistic analysis methods to this population of children (who were largely unstudied at the time). Within about three months of beginning my post-doc, the critical need for early language and communication based in interactions with caregivers with these children was startlingly obvious to me. I changed my research agenda and my career plan to focus on young children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers and early communication intervention.

I do have a personal connection to my work as well. My younger brother had ASD but was not diagnosed with autism until he was an adult. In childhood, he was labeled “trainable mentally retarded,” which never seemed right to me. He was minimally verbal but had excellent language comprehension and was independent and competent in many ways, although anxious and very shy. My mother was a founding member of the local Arc. She helped establish the first educational program for children with disabilities staffed by the Dominican nuns in a nearby community. My brother attended that program and received speech therapy there because he could not be admitted to the local public schools at the time.

What are your current research interests and what challenges do they address?

My current research focuses on extending our Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT) intervention to young children with identified language delays who are from homes where Spanish is the first language. My VKC colleagues on this work are Tatiana Peredo and Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez. We are just beginning a large-scale multi-site longitudinal study of the effects of parent-plus-therapist EMT on toddlers with receptive and expressive language delays. Finally, we have just finished a study on preschoolers with Down syndrome, examining the effects of language intervention implemented by therapists and parents. Courtney Wright and Sasha Key are key contributors to this work.

An enduring interest that guides our work is supporting families of children with complex communication needs in the context of early intervention. We have evidence that parents can be effective partners in language intervention, but we continue to be concerned about pervasive family stress and negotiating the everyday challenges that face parents of young children with disabilities. We are proposing research that blends evidence-based strategies to reduce caregiver stress, improves caregiver-child communication and accesses other behavioral interventions to address the comprehensive needs of families of young children.

Do you have a story that illustrates the impact of your work?

There are so many stories, in part because we have been so fortunate to work with amazing families and children in the Nashville area and in other communities with our research partners. A story from this week stands out because it is so fresh. We are conducting small study with a colleague at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, that focuses on training speech language therapists to implement our EMT intervention with minimally verbal preschool children with ASD. This week one of the children, whose mom has never heard him speak an intelligible word before, produced his first word, “blow” (asking the therapist to blow bubbles). His mother who was watching the session was so excited she immediately took out her phone and began taking pictures of her son with his speech therapist. That moment alone might be worth all the work of the study. That moment is an icon for what we have seen over and over again in our research, that children with very limited skills can become communicators with the people who matter most, their parents, when we teach parents and therapists strategies for interacting with and responding to the child, and expanding, modeling and prompting language in the context of play and everyday routines. I am extremely pleased that EMT is recognized as naturalistic behavioral developmental intervention (NDBI; Schreibman et al., 2017) for children with ASD.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member?

I was fortunate to train at the University of Kansas Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC) in a truly interdisciplinary research program. When I began applying for tenure-line positions, I sought a position at an IDDRC, and particularly at Peabody and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center to continue my research. The value of having an appointment in a strong department and in a center focused on research in intellectual disabilities was foremost in my considerations. I have been a VKC member since I arrived at Vanderbilt and it has enriched my work at every stage of my career.

Several years ago, when I was honored with the Susan Gray Chair in Education and Human Development, I said what I still believe: I am better researcher and better advocate for children with disabilities because of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and my department. The VKC has provided colleagues and collaborators, access to families and children, assistance in grant writing and management, and the opportunity to be part of the national and international conversation about the importance of research on developmental disabilities. The VKC staff has made our research accessible to families and for that I am forever most grateful.

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.

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