Meet Dr. Elizabeth West

Dr. Elizabeth West is an associate professor at University of Washington and recently led a study that unveiled the lack of diversity in autism research. After analyzing hundreds of peer-reviewed, published papers on evidence-based practices for autism interventions in youth, she found that only 17.9% reported the race, ethnicity or nationality of participants. In this profile, we learn about the career and the passion behind this eye-opening research.

Tell us about yourself and your career.

I am an associate professor of special education in the College of Education at the University of Washington. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Washington (2003). I am a researcher specializing in severe disabilities with a focus on cultural and linguistic diversity, technology and teacher preparation; and am an instructor in the special education teacher education program, as well as the college’s doctoral program. I have been an educator for over 20 years and have served in a variety of contexts – at the school, district, national, international and University level. Being a culturally responsive teacher and researcher is a hallmark of my work. Across all of my research I seek to understand the context that children come from and live within. Partnering with families and working to understand their experiences is critical to my research.

You recently led a study on the representation of ethnically and culturally diverse families in autism research. What did you learn?

Our study examined participant characteristics in the evidence-based practice (EBP) literature for learners with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) identified by the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. Results indicated very limited representation of diverse participants in the entire body of research, and when reported, White youth represented a large majority of study participants. This work is an attempt to begin to better understand the extent that various contextual factors are reported in a body of literature used to identify EBPs.

Of the many approaches to special education and behavioral interventions, what do you see as the most promising?

Research confirms the benefit of a number of behavioral interventions for learners with ASD — especially if provided as early intervention. Parent-delivered early intervention is a relatively new area of research which I believe holds a lot of promise. It is imperative interventions are selected that rely on practitioner wisdom and a valuing of family and community priorities. Practitioners and families must choose the most appropriate interventions that meet the unique needs of the child and family. Choice is necessary and highly valued by families because proposed EBP treatments may conflict with a family’s beliefs, may have been tried and failed, or a family may know that a proposed treatment will not work for their child. This requires practitioners to have to have strong family, and school and community partnerships.

How has research on special education and autism changed over the years?

We know more about “what works” and that early intervention is critical. However, we need to continue to ask the question related to “what works and for whom.” In addition, I believe the perception of autism has changed a lot over the years. A variety of stigmatization has been historically attached to the term autism and I do believe we are encountering an era where there has been as shift to a more positive perception.

What personal and professional challenges have you faced in a career committed to special education? Any advice for someone following in your footsteps?

Working with learners with disabilities and their families, and educators is at the heart of what I do. I love my profession and truly believe educators are in a position to influence outcomes in positive ways. That being said — I do face personal and professional challenges as this is a demanding field on many fronts. Teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low. The advice I would give someone following in my footsteps is to truly believe in what you are doing, surround yourself with good people, and continue to learn.  

With publications, research, teaching, leadership in the autism community, and more — what motivates you at the end of the day?

The belief that I can make a difference at some level….at least I keep trying.