WMU wins $500,000 grant to create wide range of autism services

Contact: Mark Schwerin
Photo of Dr. Stephanie Peterson.


KALAMAZOO—Those suffering from autism and their families are getting some much needed help thanks to a $500,000 grant to Western Michigan University psychologists from the Michigan Department of Community Health.

The grant has been awarded to Drs. Stephanie Peterson and R. Wayne Fuqua, chair and professor, respectively, in the WMU Department of Psychology, who are implementing the grant project as co-investigators. The grant will fund a sweeping array of initiatives that will use high-tech methods to help train mental health practitioners, parents and others working with autism spectrum disorder, ultimately leading to wider certification of other professionals trained in treating autism.

"The need is really huge," Peterson says. "We're taking a bite out of the elephant."

The grant initiative comes after the state reviewed existing autism services and passed legislation requiring insurance companies to cover treatment. Peterson and Fuqua looked closely at the gaps that were identified by the state and wove their grant proposal around those needs.

Photo of Dr. R. Wayne Fuqua.


Projects to be funded under the grant

  • A tele-consultation initiative, in which WMU will work with service providers and possibly teachers to increase their behavioral assessment and intervention skills when working with the autistic population. To maximize efficiency and cut down on travel, a specialized camera and audio system will provide interaction between facilitators and participants to coach them through their assessment and treatment. Dr. Peterson and WMU graduate students will then provide live feedback to participants, who can also go back and watch sessions again to review the input from experts. Five sites will be equipped with camera systems to give providers the necessary tools to effectively carry out both assessment and treatment.
  • A podcasting project, in which autism experts from across the country will explore important issues in behavior analysis related to autism assessment and treatment. The instructional resources will function like a Physicians' Desk Reference for autism spectrum disorder and help practitioners identify, implement and troubleshoot best practices in the assessment and treatment of behavioral problems that are common to children and adolescents on the autism spectrum. Among the topics that will be included are social skills, language assessment and development, self-stimulatory and self-injurious behavior, and toilet training and sleep problems. Podcasts geared toward parents and family are also a possibility.
  • Continuation of the annual Michigan Autism Conference, bringing autism experts from across the country to Kalamazoo, who, along with WMU autism experts, will provide families, practitioners and researchers with information related to assessment and treatment of autism. The first conference, which was held in October 2013, was highly successful and featured the likes of autism expert and author Dr. Jon Bailey, professor of psychology at Florida State University; and autism researcher Dr. Peter Gerhardt, director of education for the McCarton School, a year-round school dedicated to the belief that children diagnosed with autism can live full and productive lives; as well as remarks by Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.
  • Online and on-site training of supervisors for practitioners wishing to become board certified behavior analysts for autism spectrum disorder. Since the state only recently mandated insurance funding for autism treatment, Michigan has a shortage of board certified behavior analysts, whose training requires a supervised training module. By training more supervisors, it is hoped more practitioners will obtain their certification.
  • Forming partnerships with organizations providing services to those with autism and their families. WMU is exploring a partnership with the Autism Alliance of Michigan and assisting with plans to create a parent navigation system that would put families in touch with autism services in their communities.

Implementing all phases of the grant project will require the commitment of a team of WMU faculty with the help of a small army of graduate students. It is anticipated that some 25 to 30 people from WMU alone will be involved, not counting those at community partner agencies and national figures who will lend their expertise.

"We think what we're doing is very compatible with the overall state mission of improving services for those with autism spectrum disorder and their families," Fuqua says. "Services have been pretty spotty until now. This is an important part of a larger state plan to ramp up services in the state of Michigan. We're pleased to be a part of it."