RRTC receives $200K VCU Breakthroughs Fund award

Transdisciplinary team will lead a project that supports military parents and their dependent children with autism spectrum disorder.

From left: Lauren Avellone, Kelli Williams Gary, Carol M. Schall, and Heather Jones.
From left: Project team members Lauren Avellone, Kelli Williams Gary, Carol M. Schall and Heather Jones. (Courtesy Photos)

The VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) has been awarded a $200,000 VCU Breakthroughs Fund project that seeks to optimize the mental and behavioral health of military parents and their dependent children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study will also prioritize the inclusion of military families from Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) groups as developers and participants.

Lauren Avellone, Ph.D., BCBA, a research associate at the VCU Autism Center for Excellence and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and Kelli Williams Gary, Ph.D., OTR/L, an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling at the VCU College of Health Professions, are principal investigators on the two-year project, titled "The Effect of Parent-Driven Positive Behavior Interventions on Challenging Behavior Reduction and Home/Community Participation for Military Dependents with ASD."

The majority of Avellone's career has been spent completing research and providing behavioral analytic services to youth and young adults with ASD. Gary has personal military experience and professional expertise in the development of interventions for people with disabilities, and her related professional interests include racial and ethnic issues for individuals with disabilities.

“We are honored that VCU saw the value in this project and are excited to work with our military to help support children with autism," said Avellone.

“It is with great pleasure and excitement that I am working with Drs. Avellone and Schall in the School of Education and Dr. Jones in the School of Psychology,” said Gary. “It is amazing how we all came together and combined our expertise to begin development on such a worthwhile project. I hope this will lead to many other projects in the near future and is a great start to an ongoing collaboration.”

Carol M. Schall, Ph.D., director of technical assistance at the VCU Autism Center for Excellence, and Heather Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical psychology in the VCU Department of Psychology, are co-investigators. Schall and Avellone have five years of related experience collaborating with the 773rd Mission Support Group, at Joint Base Langley Eustis at Fort Eustis in Newport News. Jones is a licensed clinical psychologist who has experience conducting parent training programs for children with disabilities.

The VCU Breakthroughs Fund supports transdisciplinary teams to design unique, creative and innovative large-scale approaches to confront humanity’s grand challenges as identified in the One VCU Research Strategic Priorities Plan. Successful projects are designed to reach very specific outcomes or establish the capability to compete for external funding upon award completion.

RRTC, a center affiliated with the VCU School of Education, aims to improve employment opportunities and quality of life in the workforce for individuals with disabilities. The VCU Autism Center for Excellence, a project within RRTC, supports individuals with ASD by promoting research-based practices in schools and the community.

The VCU Department of Rehabilitation Counseling ranks 4th among masters level rehabilitation and mental health counseling training programs in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. The VCU Department of Psychology is considered one of the strongest departments in the nation in the areas of health psychology and behavioral medicine, as well as in prevention science.