Thursday, April 2, 2015

World Autism Awareness Day 2015 - An interview with Dr. Erin Schafer

The eighth annual World Autism Awareness Day is April 2, 2015. Every year, autism organizations around the world celebrate the day with unique fundraising and awareness-raising events. Phonak has taken this opportunity to talk to Erin Schafer, PhD from the University of North Texas, on her work with children with ASD and on a study on the benefits of Roger Focus for these children.

Erin Schafer, PhD

Erin Schafer is an Associate Professor at the University of North Texas in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. She teaches courses and publishes peer-reviewed research on the assessment and (re)habilitation of adults and children with hearing loss or auditory disorders. She currently serves as the Editor of the Journal of Educational Audiology, has worked as an educational audiologist, and continues to provide consulting services to local school districts. In 2013, she was awarded the Cheryl Deconde Johnson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Educational and Pediatric Audiology.

Phonak: Dr. Schafer, thank you for your time. For many years, you have been conducting multiple studies on solutions for children with normal hearing and with auditory difficulties, specifically children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As today is International Autism Awareness Day, it would great for you to share with us, how you became interested in investigating the topic of auditory deficit of children with ASD.

Erin Schafer, PhD: When I was working as an educational audiologist 10 years ago, I received assistive technology referrals to evaluate the potential benefit of FM systems on children with APD, ASD, and ADHD. I certainly understood APD, but I was unsure about the potential FM benefit for ASD and ADHD. I recommended FM system trial periods for several children with ASD and ADHD, and to my delight, the systems were extremely beneficial for most kids. At this point in my career, I realized that remote-microphone technology has the potential to really help many school-aged children, not just those with hearing loss.

Phonak: You have investigated these benefits further in your recent studies. What approach did you use in your research?

Erin Schafer: We are at the end of data collection on a study examining the benefit of Roger Focus for 14 children with ASD who are on various levels of the spectrum. Previous research has not included children who have lower function and who are non-verbal, so we were very interested in including children of all levels and functioning. All children completed a 4 to 6 week trial period at home and at school with the Roger Focus. Before and after the trial, children with higher function completed behavioral testing including speech recognition, acceptable noise levels, and listening comprehension measures. For all children, parent, teacher, and participant questionnaires were completed before and after the Roger Focus trial period in order to assess subjective benefits of the remote-microphone technology.

Phonak: What were your findings in relation to behavior and overall performance of children with ASD?

Erin Schafer: Results on the speech recognition, acceptable noise level, and listening comprehension tasks in the children with higher functioning suggested significant improvements in recognition and comprehension with the Roger Focus over a condition with no hearing technology. Similarly, the subjective questionnaires completed by participants, parents, and teachers, revealed significant improvements in listening ability with the Roger Focus over no hearing technology.

Phonak: What do children and parents say about the use of Roger Focus?

Erin Schafer: Although I love to collect research data that can be analyzed and published, the most rewarding aspect of this research is the enthusiasm of the parents and participants. Parents and teachers have shared real-life experiences that cannot be captured on a behavioral test or in a subjective questionnaire. For example, the Roger Focus helped one mother to have a meaningful conversation with her daughter. Generally, conversations with her child were very taxing and required multiple redirections and repetitions; however with the Roger Focus, her daughter made eye-contact and was able to attend to the conversation so much more easily. Another parent described how use of the Roger Focus with her two children with ASD brought her to happy tears during a shopping trip with her kids. She was able to redirect her kids’ behavior more easily with the Roger Focus. Her kids were actually on-task, and they even helped to put items in the cart! It is these simple, every-day experiences where optimal hearing can make all the difference.

Phonak: You are a passionate advocate of this technology and it has been great having you share your research with us.

Mari Ulrick (Texas, USA), mother of a daughter with autism, says:

“My daughter who has autism has difficulty hearing, especially in noisy environments, and for this reason, she misses many opportunities to communicate and interact with her peers and becomes inattentive when her teacher talks. With Roger Focus, her teacher has facilitated many conversations between her and her peers that would have never taken place otherwise, and she pays attention to her teacher with redirections through Roger Focus during the school day. Both her teacher and her speech pathologist at school have stated that using Roger has improved her behavior and increased her ability to interact and communicate with her peers and people around her.”


Schafer, E. C., Florence, S., Anderson, C., Dyson, J., Wright, S., Sanders, K., & Bryant, D. (2014). A critical for children with normal hearing and auditory differences. Journal of Educational Audiology, 20, 1-11.
Schafer, E. C., Traber, J., Layden, P., Amin, A., Sanders, K., Bryant, D., & Baldus, N. (2014). Use of wireless technology for children with auditory processing disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and language disorders. Seminars in Hearing, 35(3), 193-205.
Schafer, E. C., Mathews, L., Mehta, S., Hill, M., Munoz, A., Bishop, R., & Maloney, M. (2013). Personal FM systems for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and/or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): An initial investigation. Journal of Communication Disorders, 46, 40-52.