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Research offers options for educating kids with fragile X

Karen Riley, an assistant professor at DU’s Morgridge College of Education, is working to extrapolate remediation strategies from the latest and best medical knowledge about fragile X syndrome.

“Fragile X is the leading inherited cause of mental retardation. Down syndrome is the leading genetic cause,” Riley explains, noting that the two syndromes each have their own characteristics. Unlike children with Down syndrome, “these [fragile X] guys have really poorly organized sensory integration systems.” Any sensory bombardment causes high levels of anxiety. It’s nearly impossible for them to process an intense mix of sound, sight, taste and touch.

Because these students are very anxious, they can disrupt their classrooms and throw fits. “They’re great kids; they have a great sense of humor, but they are tough,” Riley says.

Riley hopes to make teaching them a little less tough by infusing more medical information into the education community. For example, when teachers understand that children with fragile X syndrome often melt down when their senses are overloaded, they can prevent the overload and reduce behavior problems. That will free them up to teach, rather than discipline.

A better understanding of the medical knowledge about fragile X can also help educators improve their academic strategies. “How do you teach math to a student with fragile X syndrome?” Riley asks. The medical information suggests that the student may learn more when the instruction sheet has fewer items on it. By the same token, too many manipulables may cause anxiety.

“There are lots of academic interventions we haven’t tried yet because we’re always dealing with behavior,” Riley explains.

Riley studies student responses to intervention in hopes of understanding what works best under what circumstances. By sharing this information with her students — all future school psychologists, teachers and early interventionists — she aims to improve the strategies deployed in educational settings.

“My hope is [the students] leave here with lenses tinted to look at the genetic causes for behavior.”

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