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Autism Studies Concentration Podcasts with Dr. Rowe
Check out our interview with Program Director Dr. Michelle Rowe for in-depth information about this concentration. Learn about the value it has on your career and the impact it makes on the lives of those who have autism spectrum disorder.
Read the Transcript Below
Interview with Dr. Michelle Rowe:
Tell us about your role in the development of the Autism Studies Concentration at Saint Joseph’s University.
I'm the Executive Director for the Kinney Center and Professor of Health Services here. I have been at the University for almost 20 years now. I developed the undergraduate Health Services major, which has an Allied Health sort of nature. About 10 years or so ago, I started doing an Autism Awareness Day event. It was a time when the media started to become interested in autism because suddenly these kids were being diagnosed with this thing that no one had really heard of, other than institutionalized kids. I started that and a lot of grassroots efforts around the University, bringing guest speakers and those sorts of things.
My area of research has always been on how people cope with difficult situations. This was one that was creating a lot of havoc in families. A lot of just not knowing what this whole thing is and how these kids were headed.
Around 2007, I had an autism awareness event and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at that time at the University, he and his wife came and identified that they have a child with autism. They were kind of keeping a watch on what I had been doing. At one point they decided that they wanted to possibly donate toward doing something in autism. I put together a plan in developing the Kinney Center and we went from there. We opened in 2009.
The students are staffed one on one with the kids and they learn how to work with kids with autism. It's just a field that you can't learn about unless you are actually in the trenches, getting your hands dirty and figuring things out on your own. A lot of it is just critical thinking skills, the ability to problem solve.
I guess about a year and a half or two years later, I developed the minor, which is a similar kind of program. From there, it grew pretty significantly, but we're still not covering--within that minor--the adult learners, students who are either looking to go into another field or wanting to become more specialized in the field of autism and concentrate in it. From there, the CPLS [College of Professional and Liberal Studies] program will really open up the door for the non-traditional students or even students that want to be able to take courses at night with the online program, nights, weekends and so forth.
Tell us more about your passion for Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I am sort of a big picture person in this whole field at the University because I have listened to many, many parents who are in a panic about what is going on with their child. In the past week I’ve had a conversation with a young woman who has a 10-month-old child, and she has noticed things that are different about this child--some of the red flags that autism would indicate. She's going to come in here and I'm going to take a look to see what is going on.
It’s absolutely devastating for the families and so difficult and confusing, because when a child is born, as a parent, you have this picture into the future of how that child's going to turn out. At some point they're going to play sports, they're going to be in clubs at school, they'll have lots of friends. Ultimately, they'll graduate high school and go on to college then get married and have children and a great job and this long list of things that they can look off in the future. As soon as they start to think that maybe their child has autism, all those things just stop. Now they're looking at the kid's future through a dark curtain where they can't see anything into the future.
Because of this and how difficult it is for families, it takes a special person to work in this field. Someone that is really willing to give a lot of themselves and concentrate a lot, an enormous amount of effort, on to making a difference in the lives of these families and the children that are affected. Building this program is for truly special people who want to make a difference.
One of the things I love about my job at the University is that I feel like I'm making a difference, a really meaningful difference, in the lives of these families. It’s really rewarding. I think students who study in this program will find the same thing. It’s very noble to want to go into the autism field, but you better figure out whether or not you like it because it does it takes a lot of self-perseverance, a lot of just thinking of things in a new ways. If it doesn't work one way, you've got to try it another way and maybe another way and another way, but eventually you find the way to reach that child. It takes a lot of creativity and ability to kind of reflect on what you are doing and what you can do better. There are a lot of great people out there who would be very drawn to this field for that reason. It does provide a lot of autonomy and a lot of ability to constantly be learning new things.
Can you describe the impact of research-based training for early intervention of autistic children on the students themselves – along with their family and perhaps society as a whole?
Well, there are several levels to look at this. The one part is early intervention, which is typically defined as birth to three years. Some will call it birth to five years. Early intervention is really critical because the kids have such a developing brain and the brain is very moldable and malleable, so it's the time when you can make the most progress with these kids, at least theoretically.
We use evidence-based practices, and in this case we use applied behavior analysis. Evidence-based practices are research-based, so we know that it works. We keep strong data collection and records to show that it works. In order to get services through school districts, they have to be evidence-based. You're required now by law in school districts to use evidence-based practices. The gold standard for that is applied behavior analysis. That is what we use and we see that it works.
With early intervention, there have been some recent studies that indicate if kids get intensive early intervention in that birth to three years old, birth to five years old--somewhere around there--about a third of the kids who go on to become fully mainstreamed in school. The term that's used is “indistinguishable from their peers.” They may go on to lose their diagnosis with early intervention. We know that it works early on.
There's also a lot of indication that it works for school-age children and beyond. We used to think it would work in early intervention. For kids that are school age, they can really benefit from a lot of structured learning as well from applied behavior analysis.
An interesting story: the original “Rain Man,” the one that the movie was based on with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, his father would take him, after he became famous, to speaking arrangements. Even his father said that his son, who I believe was about 50 at the time, made a lot of progress then because he was exposed to so many people and having conversations and being engaged. It's interesting that even someone older can make significant progress to according to what their environment is like.
Can you describe the Kinney Center’s association to the autism education program and the benefits to students?
The Kinney Center itself is not allowed to offer an academic program. We are a center. There are multiple academic programs surrounding the university dealing with autism. Special Ed of course is one. We have the minor. It's aligned with an allied health basis.
Certainly there are a ton of resources available for students that are studying online in terms of being able to have access to the staff here and asking questions.
What’s important to you about the course curriculum of the Autism Studies Concentration?
There are two pieces that are the most important to me. One is the scientific training, really mastering the concepts of applied behavior analysis. That's a critical part for students to really become very strong in those skills. The other part is equally important and that is the caring side. This is a chronic condition, so this is a very long process for families. They're going to be living with this likely for the rest of their lives. Again, it’s very important that these students care about these families and the job that they're doing, because it’s very rewarding as well.
Who is a good fit for this program?
They could come from a variety of backgrounds. Autism is definitely an interdisciplinary field, so you have a wide range of practitioners dealing in autism. You've got the special educators. You have the speech pathologists. You have the occupational therapists, physical therapists. You've got people coming from psychology. Say it's a second career, for example, and they want to transition into something maybe that's a little bit more meaningful for them. Or for people that have been working out there doing a job that's not necessarily something that they would want to do for the rest of their lives, it brings a lot of those skills into the autism field.
Primarily we're looking for a lot of enthusiasm, a serious commitment to making a difference and kind of an upbeat personality that can keep the attention of kids, the willingness to be silly and fun and do whatever it takes to keep these kids attending to what you're doing. Someone who is able to kind of listen to parents and help them through the process as well. There's a little bit of social work and psychology in this. It doesn't mean that you have to have a background in that. Sometimes the people that have friends that always rely on them are a good match. People that want the ability to have a lot of autonomy in making decisions and being creative in working with these kids and families.
I think one of the exciting parts of this fields is there are always new things coming along. Life-long learning is another part of this. The ability to really master your skills but knowing that there are always things available that you can become better at what you do. I think an ability to mentor others, because the model that is used in this field is learning from other experts. Eventually, when you become really good at what you do, that opens the door for you to actually mentor other people in learning those skills.
When potential students ask you for details about the program, and what they should consider if they want to apply to the program, what do you tell them?
There's a background in autism that they would learn about first. What is it, what are the causes, what's the prognosis--various areas of just a good solid background that they would get in it. Then they would move into the specific skill training, which would be the applied behavioral analysis and social skills. Those areas would provide concrete, hands-on techniques that can be measured and then reflected on to see if they're working, editing, revalued, evaluating, and those sorts of things. They have their background information, they have their specific techniques, and the other piece is like an advocacy area. What are the areas in the field that need to be focused on? Where do those services come from? Who funds them? The advocacy piece is about advocating for people with autism and their families so that they can get the best that they can and live their best lives. Those three areas are the critical areas.
Some programs just deal with the skill set. I think it is important for them to understand what autism really is beyond just the diagnostic criteria. It is also very important for them to see the big picture in terms of the advocacy and where the problems are in the field in terms of getting services. That's important, so they can be mindful of advocating for families that they're going to be working with.
Can you talk about some of the potential industries and job titles one might obtain with these credentials?
They will be in a huge range of possibilities. Some will work in the school district. There is a trend in the schools for them. One of the things that we've experienced is that the schools are very attracted by the idea of having applied behavior analysis because it is an evidence-based practice. School districts are very interested in hiring these individuals.
With the concentration, there are higher-level instructional aides that would work with these kids. They would actually be the ones to shadow them throughout the day, so they develop a relationship with one particular kid or a couple of particular kids. Then they are actually in the classroom assisting the teachers in instructing these kids, so they make a big difference in these kids' lives.
They could be out working in behavior health centers that help kids with autism. They could be working in hospital settings. They do a lot of evaluations in hospital settings and working with these kids in those settings. They could be in research areas doing research on this particular field and applied behavior analysis and how it impacts children. Of course, various physician practices would hire these individuals. They could be working in residential programs. For teenagers and adults and even children who have residential programs, they could be working with those individuals as well. A real range in terms of what they do.
Does everybody who takes this concentration ultimately go on to get the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) certification?
They have to do a certain number of hours. They need to do 670 hours in order for them to be certified. We provide the coursework. If they take all the coursework, that allows them to sit for the exam. They have to complete their hours as well. If they choose that option, which probably most of them will, then they will be able to do both of those within their program here at Saint Joseph’s.