WSU students gain from autism learning center partnership

By Judith Van Dongen, WSU Spokane

Domino-project-120SPOKANE, Wash. – In a bustling classroom, college student Kellie Carns shows Daniel Fast, age 4, a small yellow car and encourages him to point to a matching picture and name the object: “Kuh…” she prompts. “Car,” he responds – to her satisfaction.

Carns and Fast are working together as part of the Domino Project, an early childhood education initiative for children with autism that also is a learning opportunity for university students in a variety of disciplines.

“It’s important to train the people who will work with these kids for the rest of their lives,” said Dawn Sidell, executive director of the Northwest Autism Center, the advocacy organization that founded the Domino Project in 2005. “When graduates go out to work in the school system, they’ll be picking up where Domino leaves off.”

WSU participation adds speech expertise

Carns, a speech and hearing sciences graduate student at Washington State University, and classmate Anna Mottaz are the first to benefit from a new clinical training program for WSU students in the Domino Project classroom at Eastern Washington State University.

Clinical assistant professor Georgina Lynch established the WSU program and provides on-site supervision to her students.

They are part of a multidisciplinary team that includes a special education teacher, a behavior analyst and EWU students in psychology, education and occupational therapy. The WSU speech-language pathology work complements the overall effort.

“It’s been a wonderful partnership, and I’m very grateful that they’re able to do this with these kids,” said Kristina Baker, classroom special education teacher.

Better preparation for graduates

Before Lynch joined WSU in 2011, she developed special education programs for children with autism for the Central Valley School District in Spokane and served on the Northwest Autism Center’s education advisory board.

She saw first-hand that recently graduated speech-language pathologists were often at a loss as to how to work with children with autism. At WSU, she saw an opportunity to address this need through collaboration with the Domino Project.

“Working with these kids can be overwhelming to a lot of people, so I feel really good having this experience,” said Mottaz.

Speech improvements ‘phenomenal’

The help provided by Mottaz and Carns comes at a time when it’s most needed.

“There’s a critical window for language,” said Lynch. “The sooner you can start working with a child who shows characteristics of autism, the more likely the outcome is for him or her to gain functional language and communication skills.”

The ideal time, she said, is from about 13 months to 5 years, when kids’ developing brains are relatively flexible. Domino enrolls children between ages 2 and 5.

Gina Fast, mother to Daniel and his twin brother Sage, said she has seen significant changes in her children since they joined the program in early September.

“It’s been phenomenal,” she said. “When I first brought my boys in they were able to mimic words but now they’re starting to say them spontaneously, in an appropriate context.”

Individualized instruction

Carns and Mottaz work two mornings a week in the classroom helping seven students develop speech, language and communication skills.

They mostly work one-on-one with each child using interventions adjusted to the child’s individual needs. For example, they’ll teach nonverbal students to use picture symbols to communicate their wants and needs.

With children who are using single words, they’ll work on getting them to string two words together. Some activities pair kids with peers to get them to use skills gained through one-on-one speech therapy.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but I like it a lot,” said Carns, adding that she enjoys working with several children at once. “It’s been really interesting to see how these kids all have similar issues but are very different in their own ways too.”



Georgina Lynch, WSU Speech & Hearing Sciences, 509-358-7691,

Judith Van Dongen, WSU Spokane/WSU News Service, 509-358-7524,