Not long ago, the absence of autism diagnostic and intervention services in Bryan-College Station spelled a tough road for local parents of children with the condition.
Enter the Texas Autism Collaborative (TAC) – a program based at Texas A&M University and affiliated with the Center on Disability and Development in the College of Education & Human Development. Now Texas A&M faculty and community partners are filling an important service gap in Bryan-College Station while providing valuable hands-on experience for students across a wide range of career interests and academic disciplines.
TAC provides teaching, training and outreach to Texas A&M pre-service special education teachers, behavioral and therapeutic practitioners, school psychologists, clinical psychologists and parents of children with autism spectrum disorders.
Through their work with TAC, students from Texas A&M’s College of Education & Human Development are learning how to create individualized interventions for children based on their own assessments and data collection. They also are gaining the field-based hours needed to sit for the board certification exam in behavior analysis and receiving opportunities to link theory and research with hands-on experience teaching children with autism.
College of Liberal Arts doctoral students with the Texas A&M University Psychology Clinic, a TAC initiative practicum or training clinic linked to the university’s doctoral program in clinical psychology, administer a social skills training class for children with Asperger’s Syndrome (a high-verbal functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder) and related parent skills training and sibling classes.
These students, who will go on to become clinical scientists, researchers for universities, medical school faculty and other high-level professionals in the psychology field, learn to weave research into service and use service of children and parents to inform their research.
For Ee Rea Hong, a second-year doctoral student in special education who has worked for a year and a half at one of TAC’s other major initiatives – the Autism Assessment, Research and Intervention Clinic (AARIC), her experience has helped her learn not only to work with children with autism but also with their parents. She now knows to look at many variables that can affect a child with autism.
“I always need to be aware of what is going on with the child (i.e., Did he have breakfast? Did he sleep well? Is he sick today?),” she said. “Also, I need to keep up with resources that can be effective for the child.”
AARIC Interventions and Assessments
The AARIC clinic, a partnership involving Easter Seals East Texas, the Brazos Valley Rehabilitation Center and the Center on Disability and Development at Texas A&M, opened a year and a half ago. It has since served more than 30 families, providing research-based interventions and diagnostic assessments.
“Our hope in building this clinic was to provide diagnostic assessments with quick turn-around and provide high-quality, research-based, early intensive intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders,” said Mandy Rispoli, who co-directs intervention services at AARIC.
Since its launch, AARIC has quickly expanded services, now reaching young children (ages 2-5) in its preschool clinic, providing intensive one-on-one intervention in private clinics, serving children in their homes and offering social skills groups for high-functioning elementary school children with autism spectrum disorders.
“Social skills – and communication skills – are some of the biggest areas these children need to work on,” said Jennifer Ganz, an associate professor of special education and co-director of intervention services at AARIC. “We also work to address challenging behaviors and practice other functional skills, as needed.”
In addition to these services, the clinic has partnered with a local support group for families of children on the spectrum, the Bryan and College Station school districts, and Early Childhood Intervention to offer parent and family training sessions.
How to Help
“Due to funding constraints, expanding the age range of children with whom the clinic is serving has been a challenge,” Ganz said.
Donors can play an important role in the expansion of the clinic. Endowed fellowships would assist graduate students to gain valuable experience and provide services through TAC while pursuing their degrees. Scholarships for families of older children would support those who are often not covered for therapies under private insurance, and seed funds would enable the clinic to address needs related to social and communication skills and challenging behaviors.
By Holli Estridge
All photography by Gabriel Chmielewski ’06
Request your A&M Support Kit to learn how you can help Texas A&M with a gift to the Texas A&M Foundation.
- Raining Packing Peanuts Activities in the Gross Motor Lab, like this tub of packing peanuts, give graduate students the opportunity to work on communication, play, and social and gross motor skills.
- Let's play! The program directors at AARIC try to build an environment that naturally leads to opportunities for clients to interact with others. This client builds communication skills by having to ask Jennifer Ninci, BCBA, to continue to play with the elephant toy.
- How was your day? Dr. Amy Heath works with the elementary school clients on peer interaction. She has each of them ask how the other's day was and helps them with appropriate responses.
- Jump! Jump! Some activities in the Gross Motor Lab encourage clients to talk about what they are doing, comment on what others are doing or invite someone to join them in the play. Here, Jennifer Frosch oversees two clients jumping on the trampoline together.
- Social Skills Bingo Games like social skills bingo help clients consider real-life situations and how they might react. Dr. Amy Heath (not pictured) asks these clients to present an example of a question they might ask of a character performing an activity pictured on their bingo board.
- More bubbles! In the Gross Motor Lab, Dr. Amy Heath is focusing on expressive language with her client. He has to ask for her to blow the bubbles using his Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), a board with images representing activities at the clinic.
- High Praise In one of AARIC's therapy rooms, Libby Kite works with her client on Discrete Trial Teaching, a systematic way to teach new skills in which you present a task (the flash cards) to a child with a specific request or demand. A correct response is reinforced in the form of praise, high fives, attention or tangible items.
- Spilt Milk The group reads a different book every week for circle time with art activities revolving around the book's topic to help tie it in to the rest of the day. The project is also a great time to work on imitation and fine motor skills with clients. This week, graduate student Stephanie Gerow read "It Looked Like Spilt Milk" and worked on a painting project with her client.
- I found you! The tunnel activity in the Gross Motor Lab gives this client an opportunity to work on communication, play, social and gross motor skills with graduate student Whitney Gilliland.
- Rub a Dub, Dub, Packing Peanuts in a Tub Activities in the Gross Motor Lab, like this tub of packing peanuts, give graduate students the opportunity to work on communication, play, and social and gross motor skills with their clients.
- Smush As part of a research study, Ee Rea Hong is investigating the impact of technology on receptive language for individuals with autism. She uses an iPad and a ball to work with this client on the word "smush."
- What I've Learned Ee Rea Hong's experience at AARIC has helped her look at many variables that can affect a child with autism.
Steve Blomstedt ‘83, Senior Director of Development, College of Education
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