Gerald Mahoney, PhD

Director, Center on Intervention for Children and Families

Interview with Dr. Gerald Mahoney

1. What is your scientific training and background? How did it prepare you to conduct research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?

I did my training at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in the Mental Retardation Research Program. This program is mostly focused on developmental psychology but also includes a sequence of courses and research experiences that are specifically focused on children with mental retardation and other associated disabilities. I also minored in special education. Autism Spectrum Disorders was a major focus of research at Peabody when I was there. However, I did not focus specifically on ASD during my studies but more on disabilities in general. My research interest was on investigating parental influences on the development of young children with disabilities, which included children with autism.

After completing my doctoral degree, I completed a two year NICHD post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Alfred Baldwin from the University of Rochester to learn about observational procedures for conducting research on parent-child interaction.

2. How is your research relevant to autism spectrum disorders?

I have studied the effects of parent and family influences on child development, with a specific focus on the effects of parental interactions on the cognitive, communication and social emotional functioning of children with all kinds of disabilities. Results from this research, especially results related to the influence of parents’ style of interaction on children’s development, were used as the basis for developing an early intervention curriculum which is now called Responsive Teaching. We received two research and demonstration grants from the United States Department of Education which gave us the opportunity to examine the effectiveness of this curriculum on the development of young children with autism.

This work resulted in a research study in which we compared the effects of Responsive Teaching on children with autism to children with other disabilities (Mahoney & Perales, 2005). Results from this research indicated that children with autism made far greater developmental improvements, including improvements in social emotional functioning, than did children with other disabilities after receiving RT for one year. However, these group differences were not attributable to children’s diagnosis, but rather to the fact that mothers of children with autism were much more successful in learning and implementing responsive interaction strategies with their children.

A lthough the curriculum is for all children with disabilities, it is commonly identified as an intervention for children with autism. In fact, it was recently identified by the National Standards Project (2009) conducted by the National Autism Center as an “emerging early intervention treatment”. I am now conducting a randomized control investigation of this intervention here at [CWRU] in order to enhance the evidence base for this early intervention treatment model.

3. What definitional criteria are used for ASD? What criteria for inclusion do you use in your research?

In our current study we used the DSM-IV criteria. We use the ADOS, which is designed to diagnose children based on the DSM IVcriteria. In some of our research in which we were unable to use the ADOS to diagnose children, we included children with diagnoses by physicians who also presented evidence of cognitive and communication problems, as well as problems in self-regulation and interacting with people.

4. What is your research design (basic methodology, population, measures)?

We use the ADI-R as a screen and if we think that children might have autism we attempt to validate their diagnosis with the Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale (ADOS). We then implement RT with children and their parents on a weekly basis over a 12 month time period. Prior to the intervention we conduct baseline assessments of children’s functioning with the Bayley Scales of Mental Development, the Mullins Language Development Scale, the Child Behavior Checklist, and the Temperament and Atypical Development Scale. We conduct a number of family assessments, including measures of parenting stress, maternal depression and family functioning, as well as measures of parent-child interactions. These assessments are readministered after 12 months or at the completion of the study to determine whether Responsive Teaching has been effective at encouraging parents to engage in more responsive interactions with their children and, if so, whether increases in responsiveness are associated with improvements in children’s cognitive, communication and social emotional functioning. Parent and family measures are used to examine whether the psychosocial functioning of parents either moderate or mediate the effects of this intervention on children.

5. How would you characterize your research program (basic, clinical, clinical trial?)

Our current research program is clinical. We are investigating the effects of Responsive Teaching on the development of children with ASD who are less than three years old at the onset of services.

6. What implications for diagnosis and treatment of ASD come from your research findings?

Our intervention program is currently being used throughout the world, most notably in the countries of Canada, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. It is also widely throughout the United States. This year, I am involved in a project to train early intervention providers from more than one third of all Ohio Developmental Disabilities County Boards to become certified RT providers. All of these providers serve children with a range of disabilities, including autism. Two states, Kansas and Connecticut, use RT as one of the main intervention alternatives in their early intervention autism programs for children under three years of age.

7. What essential readings regarding Autism/ASD would you recommend?

I follow research on ASD as it pertains to the work that I am doing. As far as a general book on ASD, there at this point there is not one that I can recommend.

8. List your relevant publications.

Mahoney, G. & Perales, F. (2003). Using relationship-focused intervention to enhance the social-emotional functioning of young children with autism spectrum disorders. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 23 (2), 77-89.

Mahoney, G & Perales, F. (2005). A comparison of the impact of relationship-focused intervention on young children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders and other disabilities. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 26(2), 77-85.

Karaslan, O.  Diken, I., & Mahoney, G. (2011). The Effectiveness of the Responsive Teaching Parent Mediated Developmental Intervention Program in Turkey: A Case Study. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 58 (4), 359-372.   

Karaslan, O.  Diken, I., & Mahoney, G. (2012, In press).  A randomized control study of Responsive Teaching with young Turkish Children and their mothers. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education.

Mahoney, G., Wiggers, B., Nam, S. & Perales, F. (Under review). Effectiveness of Responsive Teaching with Young Children with PDD: Relationship with Parenting Psychological Status and Responsiveness. Autism.

Mahoney, G. & Nam, S. (2011). The parenting model of developmental intervention. In R.M.. Hodapp (Ed.), International Review of Research on Mental Retardation, 41. New York, NY:Academic Press, 73-125.

Mahoney, G. and MacDonald, J. (2007). Autism and developmental delays in young children: The Responsive Teaching curriculum for parents and professionals.  Austin, TX: PRO-ED.  (Korean Translation (2008). Seoul, South Korea, Hakjisa Publishing)

Mahoney, G. (2007). Autism and developmental delays in young children: The Responsive Teaching Planning and Tracking Program. (CD-ROM) Austin, TX: PRO-ED.


PhD, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University

MA, Xavier University, Psychology

BS, Xavier University, Psychology

Research Summary

I began my professional career in the early 1970's as a special education teacher for elementary school aged children. Because I felt strongly that the types of educational procedures I was using with these children were of limited value, I began to examine the research literature related to mental retardation. I hoped that this literature would help me better understand the factors that contributed to children's developmental delays, which in turn would help me develop more effective instructional procedures for working with these children.

My personal interest in this research literature helped me to understand that although there were many theories about mental retardation, there was little empirical research to support these as a viable foundation for developing more effective educational procedures. This stimulated my interest in pursuing a career in which I could conduct investigations and develop more effective interventions for children with a wide range of disabilities.


Director, Center on Intervention for Children and Families

Verna Houck Motto Professor, Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

Link to CV