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Researchers to Develop Virtual Center for Learning Disabilities

September 10, 2014

UC Merced researchers will develop a virtual center to support parents and caregivers, as well as health and other professionals in detecting and treating developmental disorders among Merced County children -- work made possible by a grant from First 5 Merced County.

Psychology Professor Jeff Gilger and Blum Center interim Executive Director Steve Roussos are leading the two-year project, which is an example of how UC Merced's innovative work can serve the community. The research will focus on at-risk children 0 to 5 years old, ages when many disorders remain undetected.

"Thousands of children get lost in the system and aren't diagnosed with learning or other developmental problems," said Gilger, UC Merced’s Carlston Cunningham Chair in Cognitive Development. "Early detection and treatment can significantly help a child, preventing a cascade of problems later in life."

Merced County's youth are particularly at risk for these disorders, given the county's demographics: high rates of poverty, poor prenatal care, lack of stimulating environments, inadequate access to services and a host of other factors, Gilger said.

"This is a chance to give our campus an opportunity to do what it does best — using research and measurement in a very tangible way to help people," Roussos said.

Many people are familiar with developmental problems such as autism or Down syndrome, yet there is a wide spectrum of disorders, and professional help can be difficult to find, even for middle-to-upper class parents, he said. This is especially true for more subtle developmental disorders like learning disabilities. Parents who are just getting by financially have an even more difficult time finding assistance.

The $383,788 grant was awarded last month by First 5 Merced County to Gilger and Roussos, and is being administered by the Health Sciences Research Institute. The UC Merced Blum Center is part of the research and outreach. Two graduate students and a couple dozen undergraduate students will help with the research and analysis, and a programmer will be hired to develop the center's website.

The project will have three components. First, researchers will work with providers and parents throughout the county to understand the resources and gaps in screening, assessment and treatment of developmental disorders. Advisory groups with local professionals in the field, community leaders, ethnic group advisors and parents will assist.  

The second phase will feature a dynamic virtual center to provide information in multiple languages about disorders and services available for parents and service providers. The virtual center will connect to a network of other information sites throughout the county. The research team will also create fliers and brochures to advertise the virtual center and promote it to Merced County residents. This is part of the community outreach of phase three.

Gilger hopes this is the first step toward a brick-and-mortar center that would be a one-stop shop for parents and medical professionals.

"Throughout my career, I've received calls from parents who are trying to figure out their children's disabilities and where to go for help," Gilger said. "I think a physical center would be great."

First 5 Merced County Executive Director Martha Hermosillo said the partnership between the agency and the campus will ultimately benefit the community.

“At First 5, we are thrilled to partner with UC Merced to support the health, growth and development of our youngest children,” Hermosillo said. “Identifying social, emotional, behavioral and developmental issues can really make a difference and enhance a child’s learning and development. This is an exciting project and a milestone for the entire county of Merced.”