Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) member Elizabeth Biggs, Ph.D., serves as assistant professor of Special Education. Her research focuses on identifying interventions that promote the flourishing of children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities in authentic school and community settings. Dr. Biggs is particularly interested in social, early communication, and language development for children and adolescents with complex communication needs who use various forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).
In the interview below, Biggs shares what inspires her research in developmental disabilities, what she’s learned through her lab’s 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 interest in research has really flowed from my own experiences working with children with disabilities at a personal level. For several years before entering academia and the world of research, I worked as a special education teacher at a school on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. It was during this time that my passion really grew for working with children with developmental disabilities and their families – especially children with disability diagnoses such as autism or intellectual disability who had limited verbal speech. For these students, finding ways to improve communication, social, and language development opens incredible doors for their future and current flourishing. As a teacher, I worked hard to ensure that my students had access to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) such as communication boards with picture symbols or speech-generating devices, because I realized that these tools had the potential to really open these doors. But, there were also many challenges. My own training in AAC wasn’t strong enough, nor was the training of other services providers that I collaborated with, including speech-language pathologists. There were also a host of determinants impacting success, including not knowing how to partner with families successfully and ensure communication support for students across all of their environments. I became really interesting in learning how to push the field forward through research in these areas, as well as training other teachers and service providers more effectively.
What are your current research interests and what problem(s) or challenge(s) does it address?
My research focuses on communication, language, and social development and intervention for children and adolescents with complex communication needs who use different forms of AAC or would benefit from these communication tools – such as speech-generating devices. The challenges and questions that interest me the most are very applied in nature – such as better understanding the complex factors that influence implementation and sustainment of effective AAC-related interventions in practice, including in schools, in homes, and in other community settings, and then working to support more successful implementation.
Currently, I am doing work related to the COVID-19 pandemic in these areas. For example, along with a number of collaborators, we have been working to learn about, develop, and test ways to use telepractice to improve the supports that families receive related to AAC and supporting their child’s communication development. Given the shortages in service providers and teachers with experience and training related to AAC, these types of interventions have a lot of promise for more equitable AAC support, but research in this area is really just beginning.
This year, I have also received funding from the Spencer Foundation from their specific COVID-19 related call for proposals for a longitudinal study across the 2020-2021 school year. Through this project, my team is working hard to understand the nature of families’ involvement in language and literacy learning for elementary-aged children with limited verbal speech and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a specific eye toward the supports families are receiving and the role of different supports from family-school partnerships and parents’ broader social networks in enhancing the ways families are involved in supporting language and emergent literacy learning at home. Our aim is to leverage what we learn to reimagine family-school and family-service provider partnerships for the future, particularly related to language and literacy learning for children with limited verbal speech and who use AAC.
Do you have a story about a research participant or a breakthrough that illustrates the impact of your work?
Working with families has been really rewarding. For many children, learning language and learning to communicate happens so naturally and rapidly – almost magically, even. But, clearly this isn’t the case for many children with developmental disabilities. So, it is really powerful when I get to hear families’ stories and see their joy in learning successfully support their child’s communication development at home – these stories keep me wanting to do this work.
What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Investigator? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?
It’s really thrilling to be a part of the VKC because of the breadth and depth of work that is being done to improve the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. I can’t think of a place I would rather be in terms of being connected to others who are really leading the charge with innovation and discovery in this area. Being surrounded by so many incredible leaders in the field pushes me to do my work at a high level, and provides me with great people to support me in doing this as an early career researcher.
Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.