Lehigh University
Lehigh University


COE event offers comprehensive and holistic overview of autism

Seated on the couch from left, panelists Paula Kluth, Jed Baker, Joyce Mauk, and moderator Linda Bambara listen as Lynn and Robert Koegel, standing, give their presentation during the College of Education’s 2009 Distinguished Lecture Series.

On Sunday afternoon, a panel of five nationally-known leaders in the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) arena visited Lehigh University for the College of Education’s 2009 Distinguished Lecture Series.

They spoke to a crowd of more than 700 educators, families and community members about the developmental disorder, which afflicts one in every 250 Americans.

The panel discussion was one of only a handful nationwide to give such a comprehensive and holistic overview of autism, says Gary Sasso, dean of the College of Education and a leading voice in autism interventions.

"It's very difficult to find such a wide-ranging discussion about autism, especially one in which you can learn about the latest research from a handful of our country's foremost experts," says Sasso. "We're pleased to have been able to bring such an important session to the Lehigh Valley community."

The event, which was co-sponsored by the St. Luke’s Health and Hospital Network , was moderated by Linda Bambara, professor of special education at the College of Education. Bambara is a well-known among the special education community for her research on positive intervention supports for the severely disabled.

Over the course of the past year, the university has raised the profile of ASD among the Lehigh Valley community. This spring, it welcomed Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief medical officer of Autism Speaks, to Lehigh as part of a Hughes grant.

Lehigh also was named a leading partner in a new regional autism research center, where it will work with the University of Pennsylvania, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Drexel University to advance autism-related training and research initiatives.

But Sunday’s event was unusual in its scope, says Bambara.

“Not a day goes by without some new information about the diagnosis, cure, or intervention for children with ASD,” said Bambara, who spoke about the “confusing and contradictory” stories about autism that have become so prevalent in the media.

“What we want to do is show you what very good high quality interventions look like, and what’s possible for kids when good interventions are put into place,” she said.

An impressive roster of speakers

Linda Bambara, professor of special education at the College of Education, served as the event's moderator.

Among the speakers were Robert and Lynn Koegel of the Koegel Autism Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The Koegels pioneered a data-supported intervention called Pivotal Response Treatment, which seeks to make rapid, widespread gains all at once.

The Koegels have long been proponents of working with autistic children in their typical environments and in their daily routine, and have long encouraged family involvement in helping overcome challenges presented by autism. It’s an approach that was evident during a guest spot on ABC’s “Super Nanny” television show, in which Lynn Koegel worked with a family to get their non-verbal child to speak his first words.

Similarly, Jed Baker’s success in social skills training for autistic children, especially in the classroom, has been featured in several national media outlets such as ABC’s World News Tonight. A behavioral consultant for several New Jersey school districts, Baker spoke of helping children overcome anxiety and fear, and how parents often get “hijacked” by their frustration in dealing with their children in public.

“It’s not what we do, but it’s how we do it,” says Baker. “Do we tolerate our discomfort long enough to think about what we want to do with our kids?”

Paula Kluth talked about how to make classrooms more inclusive for children and how to make the most of IEPs, or Individual Education Program plans. More often than not, she said, children with autism and other developmental disorders don’t get the support they need.

She thinks too little thought is put into creating effective learning environments for children.

“What you often see in situations where kids are struggling is this: someone may have accessed the ‘real estate’ of the inclusive classroom, but getting the real estate is not enough for most of the kids I work with,” Kluth said.

While these speakers addressed the interventions and positive supports, Joyce Mauk gave an overview of the scientific and medicinal treatments for those with ASD. She said that few “treatments” that families learn about on TV, or in magazines, or on shelves aren’t grounded in proven science or research, which makes treating the disorder confusing.

“What we need to be wary of is when someone is spouting a treatment and all they’re selling you is the anecdote,” she said. “That’s not really all there is. That’s not the most important thing, but as human beings, we respond to that.”

Visitors to the Sunday afternoon session were also greeted by representatives from such organizations as Autism Speaks, the Autism Society of America, and the physical therapy units of St. Luke’s.

"We know that there is an important national conversation occurring regarding Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the research community is working to ensure that the discussion regarding causation and treatment is based on the most reliable information. That's why these forums are so important," said Sasso. "By sharing empirically-driven research on what works—and what doesn't—we’re giving the Lehigh Valley community the kinds of resources they need to tackle in an effective way.”

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Wednesday, May 06, 2009

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