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Lehigh to help lead regional Autism Center



Linda Bambara (left) and Christine Cole (right) will lead Lehigh’s involvement in the grant.

Lehigh University’s College of Education has been named a partner in a new regional Autism Center that will assess current services and develop training models to support the state’s fast-growing autism community.

Lehigh will be partnering with the University of Pennsylvania, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Drexel University in this consortium—one of three such regional partnerships that have been created across the state at the request of the Commonwealth’s Bureau of Autism Services.

The center is funded by a $1.6 million ASERT (Assessment, Services, Education, Research, and Training) grant that will leverage Pennsylvania’s research community as a means to strengthen the delivery of autism services across the state. The grant was awarded by the Bureau of Autism Services, a division of Pennsylvania’s Office of Developmental Programs.

Linda Bambara, professor of special education and associate chair of the College of Education, and Christine Cole, professor and coordinator of the school psychology program, will lead Lehigh’s involvement in the grant. Lehigh’s role in the regional ASERT consortium will be to train and instruct professionals—caregivers, psychologists, educators—in positive behavior support models, a set of interventions designed to prevent behavioral challenges by identifying underlying problems.

In addition, Lehigh will develop and evaluate a model community inclusion program for adults with autism in collaboration with local autism providers.

“Autism is frequently a misunderstood disorder, so much of our focus will be on developing programs that benefit both young adults with autism and their communities,” says Cole. “This is a collaborative effort that will allow all the partners, for the first time, to confront these challenges head-on.”

The demand for autism services has grown significantly in the past 15 years, when the number of individuals in Pennsylvania diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has risen by over 2,000%, from two per 10,000 people to over 40 per 10,000 people.

ASD is a set of five disorders that include autistic disorder, Asperger Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Rett Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. They impede an individual’s ability to communicate and interact with others.

The Autism Society of America estimates 60 individuals are diagnosed with ASD every day, and that the United States faces almost $90 billion annually in costs associated with ASD.

A national leader in the study of developmental, social, and behavioral disorders, Lehigh’s College of Education has long provided special education support and training services throughout eastern Pennsylvania. For more than 20 years, its Transition and Assessment Services program, directed by Cole and Bambara, has prepared high school students with intellectual disabilities to enter the workforce.

As part of the ASERT grant, that program will now be expanded and brought onto Lehigh’s south Bethlehem campus, where students with special needs, including autism, will have the chance to interact with their peers and get on-the-job training.

Children with autism may attend public schools and have programs tailored to their specific needs, but after high school, very few supports exist for adults with autism. According to Bambara, as the average age of adults with autism continues to rise, the limited resources currently available will be hit hard.

That’s why researchers are aggressively exploring new ways to support—and learn more about—the autism community.

“We try to understand what might be frustrating a person. What is going on environmentally? What are the skills that we need to teach?” asks Bambara. “Problem behaviors for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities are often rooted in poor communication and social skills. So our goal is to teach.”

--Tom Yencho


Posted on Friday, January 16, 2009

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