When nationally known researcher Susan Wilczynski realized that more trained professionals were needed to treat the growing number of Americans with autism, she came to Ball State for the solution.
She left her position as executive director of the National Autism Center in 2011 to join the university's Teachers College faculty as the first Plassman Family distinguished professor of special education and applied behavior analysis. She wanted to collaborate with other experts—such as David McIntosh, the David and Joanna Meeks distinguished professor of special education—who shared a "long-standing and visionary commitment" to the population with autism.
Through Ball State's innovative master's program in applied behavior analysis with an emphasis in autism, she helps to prepare educators and health professionals to make a difference for children, families, schools, and communities affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
"When I ran the National Autism Center, we identified treatments that had strong research support for the children, adolescents, and young adults with ASD," says Wilczynski, who chaired the five-year National Standards Project, the most comprehensive systematic review of autism literature to date. "Then I asked myself, ‘So what? What does that mean if we don't have enough professionals who are qualified to put these treatments into practice?'" Ball State's autism program—the only one of its kind in Indiana—integrates research with practical applications. It is one of the few programs in the nation that addresses ASD with applied behavior analysis, which employs techniques such as positive reinforcement to improve behavior. Graduates can become board-certified behavior analysts after passing a national exam.
"They learn research-supported strategies that help people with severe deficits learn how to talk, effectively control their own behavior, and become more independent so they can make choices about how to live their lives in a way that makes them happier," says Wilczynski, recipient of the 2011 Wing Institute Award for her contributions to evidence-based practice and autism research. "But we also show our students that these same strategies can be used to produce better work environments for staff."
Offered completely online for working adults, the program has grown rapidly to enroll about 800 students from 45 states and five other countries.
"This means that we are bringing effective treatments to scale on a national and, increasingly, international level as quickly as possible," Wilczynski says. An undergraduate curriculum is also being developed to provide earlier training for aspiring professionals.
As an outgrowth of the program, Ball State's new Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders will coordinate services and programs for the public, training for professionals and families, and innovative research on effective treatments. Several projects are already under way, including work to identify assessment tools and analyses that can help adults with ASD find competitive employment.
"Altogether," Wilczynski says, "we are very excited about what we will accomplish in the coming years."
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