School of Education Receives THECB Autism Grant Award for Innovation

Award for Jessica Akers, Ph.D., focuses on the importance of sibling relationships in behavioral interventions for children with autism

January 19, 2023
Dr. Jessica Akers

Jessica Akers, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational psychology in Baylor University's School of Education,

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WACO, Texas (Jan. 19, 2023) – Jessica Akers, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational psychology in Baylor University’s School of Education, has received a $893,409 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop an innovative treatment model for children with autism and their siblings.

Akers has created an intervention program that intentionally focuses on improving the interactions between siblings. Sibling SUCCESS: Supporting Unique Collaborative Care to Encourage Shared Success invites the siblings of children with autism or “special siblings” to collaborate and participate as a vital member of the intervention team. Although behavioral interventions are highly effective for children with autism, these behavior programs – while including parents – do not address the importance of the sibling relationship.

“We forget that there are other family members, and their opinions and their feelings about what's going on are important,” said Akers. “The sibling relationship is often overlooked but plays an essential role in the life of an individual with autism. It lasts longer than the parent-child relationship, and after parents, siblings are the most common caretakers of individuals with disabilities.”

In fact, many siblings will take on some, if not all, caretaking responsibilities during the life of the individual with autism. Compared to other disabilities, individuals with autism have the lowest rates of independent living, with only 19% of adults with autism living independently from their families.

Including special siblings in “earlier rather than later” conversations about future plans for their sibling with autism, Akers said, can help ensure appropriate preparations are made. In addition to properly planning for the future, the experience of growing up as a special sibling can be positively impacted by increasing their access to information about autism, opportunities to interact with other special siblings and a decrease in challenging behavior in the sibling with autism.

This project holds professional and personal interest for Dr. Akers. Growing up with a brother and sister with developmental disabilities, Dr. Akers is passionate about her work with children with disabilities and their special siblings. This program gives special siblings not only an opportunity to contribute to a treatment plan but meet other special siblings. “Other kids don’t really understand what they are going through,“ Akers said . “This program gives them a place where they can be open about their experiences and have other kids understand what they are going through.”

The program will provide three levels of training and support related to including siblings within behavioral interventions:

  • Level 1 will be an extended program targeting the reduction of challenging behavior and increase in prosocial behaviors;
  • Level 2 will be a four-week program promoting positive interactions between siblings; and
  • Level 3 will be a one-day workshop to teach siblings how to use basic behavioral tools to enhance the quality of interactions with their siblings with autism.

In addition to providing these direct services, Akers and her team will provide a professional development workshop on collaborating with siblings to practitioners working with children with autism.

Over the next three years, Akers and her team will use the information from this project to develop a socially valid service model for promoting collaboration with special siblings.

Akers joined the Baylor School of Education faculty after completing her completed her post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, working in the Munroe-Meyer Institute. Specializing in applied behavior analysis, she focuses her research on strategies for promoting appropriate social and play skills and verbal behavior in individuals with autism and related disabilities. She is primarily interested in targeting appropriate play between children with autism and their typically developing peers and siblings.

Akers also directs Baylor’s Clinic for Assessment, Research and Education, which is a member of the Baylor Center for Developmental Disabilities. Baylor CARE provides applied behavior analysis assessment and intervention services, striving to provide children with intellectual and developmental disabilities research-validated therapies and services. In addition to providing services to children in the Greater Waco area, Baylor CARE also provides graduate students and faculty with research opportunities to improve outcomes for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

She has published her research in journals, including the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Learning and Motivation and The Analysis of Verbal Behavior.

This work was supported in whole or in part by a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). The opinions and conclusions expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policy of the THECB.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


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