Tags Posts tagged with "Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders;"

Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders;

Self-quarantining and social distancing measures this spring because of COVID-19 led to widespread disruptions in people’s schedules. Adjusting to those changes took a toll on everyone — young and old — and particularly children on the autism spectrum, who can experience enormous anxiety when deviating from routine. To help parents navigate the new terrain, Southern’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders created Friday Friendly Forums, a series of five conversations with center staff on a variety of autism spectrum disorder topics. The forums are free and can be viewed online at any time.

“The idea was to support caregivers,” said Kari Sassu, a research scientist with the center.

That support is critical: It can mean the difference between optimism and despair, and between healthy growth and discouraging setbacks. It has everything to do with how the center serves and supports the region, from top to bottom — so that thousands of children and young adults with autism in the state get the chance they deserve to live happy, productive lives. And during the pandemic, the center didn’t stop its outreach efforts.

“For people with autism, the loss of routine has affected them so much,” Sassu said. “That causes anxiety and behavioral changes. The center may be physically closed right now, but its support isn’t.”

The first Friendly Forum, “Structure and Flexibility,” provides support for families and caregivers of children with ASD as they navigate the homeschooling experience. It was born of Sassu’s own experience as a full-time working parent of children on the spectrum who recognized “the importance of structure and predictability.”

“There are competing demands,” Sassu said, “for parents who have work and there may be other children, too. A lot of our kids on the spectrum need a schedule and guidance to execute extra tasks. That can be daunting, to spin all of those plates simultaneously.”

The second, “Virtual PPT Meetings,” is led by Sassu and Kimberly Bean, another research scientist with the center. Much like it sounds, it discusses considerations for planning and placement teams (PPT) to meet virtually, which Sassu said can be overwhelming.

“We heard parents were really struggling with that,” Sassu said.

Forum three, “Transitioning to Homeschooling,” is a discussion of the ups and downs associated with transitioning to homeschooling. Four is “Supporting Communication,” guidance offered by Barbara Cook, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at Southern, and five is “Self-Care for the Caregiver,” led by Sassu, who talks about the concept of self-care and its importance, especially as it relates to those caring for children with special needs right now.

In addition to the forums, the center has organized a free virtual program, SCSU CCD PEERS, a young adult social skills program based on the UCLA PEERS program, which is an evidence-based, caregiver-assisted social skills intervention for youth 18 – 21 years old with ASD. The program covers conversational skills, dating skills, peer pressure, electronic communication, and more. Sessions are held via Zoom on Mondays, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. The final session is July 27.

The center also created a First Responders Autism Training program, an online course that began in January 2020 that’s especially relevant given the increased reliance on medical professionals during the pandemic.

“If an ENT shows up if someone is injured and there’s no training already, it’s important for them to have the background so they better know how to care for someone who is on the spectrum,” said Meaghan Reilly, a student worker at the center. The course includes a video presentation and a live discussion board via Zoom with one of the team members from the center.

Sassu said the center’s online offerings will continue to expand throughout the summer with webinars about Title IX and the International Disability Alliance, which improves awareness and rights for individuals with disabilities.

“We’re also in the process of putting together a series of talks for students with autism spectrum disorders on college campuses,” Sassu said. “There are some for students and some for faculty, and then some for peers. Also, a training series for school-based professionals. If students on the spectrum are going to transition back to school or continue online, they’re going to need help to address transitioning.”

Response to the online forums and offerings has been encouraging as the center continues its commitment to providing much-needed services.

“This is an unpredictable time,” Sassu said. “We all are going day-to-day, but for people with autism, it’s unsettling. The question is, how can we make it work so everyone — parents, teachers, providers, and students — are their best?”

Principal Susan DeNicola, '86, M.S. '90, 6th Yr. '99, with some of her charges. Student uniforms will be Owl blue next year. The school's mascot is an owlet.

Designed with the latest educational advances in mind, the Barack H. Obama Magnet University School opened on Southern’s campus on Jan. 7. By March 13, both the Obama School and the university had temporarily shuttered their buildings and were moving to remote/online learning in response to New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker’s call for citywide closures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. (Campus is opening for the fall 2020 semester.) But while students — both elementary age and Southern education majors — had worked in the new building for only a few months, the potential had already been demonstrated, and it’s a win-win for all involved.

For Southern students, the Obama School provides an opportunity for all-important experiential learning. The elementary school’s students and their teachers, in turn, benefit through additional support in the classroom from student-teachers and field workers — as well as the experience of Southern’s staff and faculty. An over-arching goal: to serve as a national model, highlighting best practices and promoting educational innovation.

The new elementary school is a collaboration between Southern, the New Haven Board of Education, and the city of New Haven. As such, it is a rarity — uniting a public university with a public school system.

Charles Warner Jr. meets the children in the school’s welcoming entryway.

“A lot of times, the schools found on college campuses are private enterprises, so they are selective. You pay tuition to go. The faculty’s kids attend,” says Stephen Hegedus, dean of the College of Education. In contrast, the Obama School is part of New Haven Public Schools, a magnet program that accepts students from regional school districts but primarily serves New Haven. The Obama School is designed to educate close to 500 students. It opened with classrooms for kindergarten through fourth grade. Looking forward, three preschool classrooms will be added, bringing 60 three- and four-year-old children into the fold.

“Part of our social justice mission is to create access for all kids. It just makes sense to me for the Obama School to have this connection with Southern, a public university in New Haven that has had a 100-plus-year mission dedicated to teacher and educator preparation of the highest-quality,” says Hegedus.

The Obama School — formerly known as the Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet — has evolved dramatically over many years. About six years ago, aided by grant funding, it became a magnet school with an educational focus on communications, technology, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Students receive instruction in Chinese and American Sign Language — and the elementary school was named a “School of Distinction” by EdSight.CT.gov for 2018-19, the most recently available data.

“With our technology, we’ve been able to open up the world to the kids,” says Susan DeNicola, ’86, M.S. ’90, 6th Yr. ’99, principal of the school for the past nine years.

But while the curriculum changed, the school, which had moved numerous times, was still located in an old building on Grand Avenue. It was welcoming and homey, teachers say. But there were serious issues. The building, situated on four streets, had a roof plagued with leaks. The playground was dilapidated, too dangerous for the children to use. Most-often mentioned: a lack of natural light. “In the other building we had very few windows — and what windows we did have were clouded up, so the kids could not see out. We had no ideas if it was pouring,” says DeNicola. “We had no idea if there was a hurricane.”

Now located on campus at 69 Farnham Ave., the Obama School is designed so sunlight streams into all interior spaces. A multistory, outside STEM room is lined with windows to stream light into the interior, including the cafeteria. Most classrooms are situated to provide views of West Rock and the surrounding forest of 200-plus-year-old trees. Cozy, built-in seating is located outside of classrooms, providing an ideal spot for tutors to work with students who might need additional support. There are dedicated music and art rooms as well as a STEM resource laboratory.

A multistory, outside STEM room is lined with windows to stream light into the interior, including the cafeteria.

A sensory room houses a ball pit, trampoline, and other activities, for students who need a physical outlet or support. There is a gym with basketball hoops — and an age-appropriate playground is adjacent to an outside STEM classroom with space for growing plants.

The building also is designed with Southern students and faculty in mind. A centrally located Faculty Innovation Lab visually demonstrates the school’s focus on teacher preparation. “I think of the school as a course textbook in a lot of ways,” says Laura Bower-Phipps, professor of curriculum and learning at Southern. In addition to inviting her students to tour the building, Bower- Phipps teaches a course — “Responsive Curriculum and Assessment” — in the Faculty Innovation Lab space. In the spring 2020 semester prior to the shift to online learning, 16 Southern students were placed at the Obama School: six were student-teachers and 10 were completing field experiences, the final step before taking a student-teacher assignment.

The partnership extends to Southern’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders. “They have helped us out quite a bit. Training our teachers and bringing support to the school,” says DeNicola. The Obama School has two self-contained classrooms for students who are on the autism spectrum, serving up to 24 students. The collaboration between Southern’s Center of Excellence and New Haven Public Schools was established years ago by the center’s cofounder and former director, Ruth Eren. Services include professional- development opportunities for teachers, support-service providers, and paraprofessional as well as training and information sessions for parents and caregivers. “Our center team and the larger college community are eager to continue this collaboration, and excited about the myriad possibilities that exist for ongoing, bidirectional learning,” notes Kari Sassu, 6th Yr. ’15, associate professor of counseling and school psychology, and director of strategic initiatives at the center.

Hegedus concurs: “Having a presence there is important not only to help the teachers and the families but also to try to advance our overall knowledge of helping students who are on the spectrum.”

On World Read Aloud Day, the elementary school students had numerous visitors from the university, including Southern President Joe Bertolino (left) and Roland Regos.

These and similar goals have the educators at Southern and the Obama School eagerly looking to the future and students’ return to campus. Like their peers, fourth grade teacher Kayla Seeley, ’12, M.S. ’17, and second grade teacher Karissa L. O’Keefe, ’04, M.S. ’13, have thoughts about potential initiatives. Among their vision: Mentoring visits from Southern athletics teams. Collaborations with the Department of Communications Disorders. Halloween trick-or-treating on campus. Visits to Buley Library, the new science building, and the Lyman Center for the Performing Arts. Both stress the importance of showcasing college as the future to their young charges.

Principal DeNicola looks to the future as well: “We hope to really utilize campus, so our students get the most benefits . . . and we want to involve our student-teachers to the point that they feel like this [points around the school] is home. We want to be the teaching school. The school that teaches teachers.” ■

Cover of SCSU Southern Alumni Magazine Summer 2020Read more stories in the Summer ’20 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.

younger students looking at laptop

The coronavirus pandemic has brought upheaval to students throughout America, leaving the education system to struggle with a temporary “new normal.” But for those individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, these changes are creating additional distinctive challenges.

Barbara Cook, associate professor of communication disorders who also collaborates with SCSU’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders, offers some suggestions to teachers and professors on how students with autism – particularly at the college level – can better deal with these challenging times.

Challenge: Navigating the social expectations with remote learning.

Cook said these can include addressing the following questions:

*How do students alert the teacher/professor when they have a question or comment?
*How do students step away from a live session (do they announce that they are leaving, or do they just walk away from the computer)?
*Where do students look or direct their gaze?
*How do students consider the background being displayed from their computer when showing video?
*Where do students sit during these online classes?

Suggestion: A course professor may need to reach out to individual students to clarify expectations and rules for engaging during synchronous learning. Examples would include how students should indicate they have a question or comment, and whether they are expected to keep their video on throughout a session, or if they can leave unannounced. Raising awareness of the subtleties during a private conversation will be greatly appreciated by the students.

Challenge: Navigating the social expectations for asynchronous learning. This might prove to be especially challenging given the heightened need to self-manage the review of materials and complete course readings and assignments.

Because of the sudden shift to an online platform, a professor may have created additional assignments that can monitor and assess the engagement of students for this type of learning. This might be perceived as “breaking the contract” of the original syllabus. The student may struggle to connect with the professor to gain clarification or request an accommodation to align with their learning needs.

Suggestion: Check in with each student to learn about their strategy for organizing and planning assignments. If you use BlackBoard, take advantage of its calendar function, which can show all students the due dates of assignments. And the announcement feature can provide the ability to link to specific assignments in the course to serve as weekly reminders. Course instructors are encouraged to connect with their school’s disability resources office to better understand the needed accommodations for online learning of their students.

Challenge: Navigating one’s home as a classroom or learning environment.

Learning in a physical classroom is conducive to engaging in one’s course work. But a home setting can create distractions for students, causing them to relax and focus on leisure activities, rather than course work. Organizing, planning, and time management for completing course work might be interrupted.

Suggestion: Share similar challenges experienced by many peers, and hold discussions or possibly check-ins to encourage continuation of learning. Offer suggestions for creating a daily routine that includes a set time and location for completing course work. This daily schedule also should include designated time for leisure activity.

Challenge: Navigating group projects. Students may inconsistently initiate or respond to email with other students during group projects.

Suggestion: Teachers and professors can arrange meetings with student groups to find out their approach to communicating, as well as the timeline they have outlined to complete the steps of the project(s). It would be important to arrange check-in meetings between the course instructor and the groups to keep momentum.

 

For the first time in its 122-year history, Southern has an endowed chair.

Ruth Eren – the director of SCSU’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders and a noted expert in this field on program development for children – has been selected as the Goodwin Endowed Chair in Special Education. She was chosen after a national search.

Eren, along with the late former interim dean of the School of Education James Granfield, co-created the Center in 2010 to help provide the state with a distinctive resource to improve the experiences of children who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

She has spent many years consulting with public schools in Connecticut regarding program development for children with ASD and has been a member of several state committees related to this subject, including Connecticut’s Task Force for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Eren is a former special education teacher and administrator, and currently serves as chairwoman of the SCSU Special Education Department.

“Ruth stands out in her field as an educator, researcher and resource who has been tapped many times by Connecticut legislators and education officials for her insight and advice,” said Stephen Hegedus, SCSU dean of the School of Education. “We are delighted to have someone with Ruth’s commitment and vision to become our very first endowed chair at Southern.”

Louise Spear-Swerling, chairwoman of the search committee for the endowed chair, agreed.

“She has an extensive knowledge base about autism spectrum disorders, years of practical experience working with individuals with autism, and a longstanding involvement in state, regional and national autism initiatives. She combines an exceptional level of applied expertise with strong leadership skills and a deep personal commitment to helping this population of students and their families.”

The endowed chair is being funded through a gift left by the late Dorothy Weisbauer Goodwin, who graduated from Southern in 1939, when it was named the New Haven State Teachers College. She died in 2009 at the age of 91.

Upon her death, $1 million of the $1.2 million gift to the SCSU Foundation was earmarked for an endowed chair. Today, that endowment is worth nearly $1.6 million. About $180,000 is available initially, with additional allocations each year that are determined by SCSU Foundation policy and market conditions.

The intent of the gift is to provide financial support for the position, including a reimbursement to the university of salary and benefit costs associated with the position; the hiring of research assistants working for the chair; and covering conference, travel, publication, research and other customary expenditures associated with an endowed chair.

“I would like to use the endowment to support more SCSU student engagement in the Center and its activities, bring outstanding leaders in the field of education regarding ASD to our campus to share their knowledge with our students and community, and support efforts to increase our visibility and influence at state, national and international conferences,” Eren said.

“Most important, the endowed chair will allow SCSU and the Center to enhance the lives of individuals with ASD by giving their teachers, related service providers and families, the evidenced-based tools that will help them all to achieve the goal of successful participation in society as adults,” she added.

Hegedus said the chair is a major boost for SCSU.

“We are confident that this will enhance the reputation and prestige of the Center and the university as a whole,” he said.

    The avoidance of eye contact is a well-known characteristic of those who have an autism spectrum disorder. But does that avoidance result in the common speech difficulties and other language development problems generally seen in those with the disorder?

    Southern – in a partnership with Haskins Laboratories, which is affiliated with both Yale University and the University of Connecticut – hopes to find out the answer to that question as part of a three-year study that recently began. The research is being funded through a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. SCSU is receiving about $300,000 of the grant.

    “This study could be transformative in terms of what we learn about autism spectrum disorders and for intervention for speech language programs,” said Julia Irwin, associate professor of psychology and the lead investigator for the project. “We hope it will enable us to better understand the roots of language difficulties, which in turn, will help us to treat children at an earlier age.”

    Irwin said that most research and clinical practice involving forms of autism emphasize the auditory perception component, but the visual aspect (exposure to mouth movements in face-to-face communication) receives relatively little attention.

    “Yet, reduced gaze to the face may have cascading effects on language learning in two important ways,” Irwin said. “First, it limits a child’s experience with the movements of a speaker’s face — movements that can help the listener understand what is said, especially in a noisy environment. Second, it can make it less likely that children will imitate the speaking faces of others, which is a powerful way to learn words.”

    The non-invasive study has children watching videos of people speaking and using an eye tracker to see where they are gazing during the video. The children will wear a specially designed cap that will enable researchers to look at the electrical activity of their brains with EEG and determine if there is an underlying problem integrating the auditory and visual information.

    Later, the children participate in a therapeutic training game called “Listening to Faces” with the use of an iPad. The game encourages the participants to look at the faces of individuals speaking. They will then be tested to see if there an improvement in their ability to hear and understand people speaking.

    “Our preliminary indication is that they do show improvement,” Irwin said. “But we need to expand the pool of participants before we can reach any conclusion.”

    Irwin said the researchers are asking for child volunteers, between the ages of 6 and 12, who will be paid $10 an hour for about six hours. The testing is conducted over two visits with about three hours per visit.

    Parents wishing to have their children tested should contact project coordinator Jacqueline Turcios, an SCSU graduate student, at listeningtofaces@haskins.yale.edu to see if they are eligible.

    Several SCSU departments and individuals are involved in the project, including Larry Brancazio, chairman of the Psychology Department; Ruth Eren, director of the SCSU Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders; Barbara Cook, assistant professor of communication disorders; the Center for Communication Disorders; Jonathan Preston, a former assistant professor of communication disorders; and graduate student Jacqueline Turcios.

    To learn more about the study, check out a recent article in the New Haven Register and the text version of a story on Channel 8.