New Michigan budget includes $4M for WMU autism initiatives

Contact: Cheryl Roland
Photo of Nesbitt, O'Brien, Dunn and Schuitmaker.

Left to right: Nesbitt, O'Brien, Dunn, Schuitmaker at June 20 announcement.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University is slated to receive $4 million to boost its autism research and professional training initiatives, State Rep. Margaret O'Brien announced June 20 during a stop on campus for a news conference.

The University, which has a national reputation for its work in behavior analysis as a treatment for autism, will use the funding to tackle the growing national incidence of the brain development disorder by:

  • Increasing the number of new professionals in the field each year and developing a training model that can be disseminated and replicated at other colleges and universities.
  • Developing innovative on-campus support networks for college students on the autism spectrum.
  • Directing and overseeing a community daycare and treatment center for young children.
  • Directing, developing and maintaining community consultation resources, using such technology as podcasts and teleconsultation.

An 'internationally known program'

"Today we're here to really focus on our children ... It's about what research shows works and about investing in our young people so that we can not only improve quality of lives, but we can actually maximize the resources that the taxpayers send to the state," O'Brien said. "... We're announcing today that we have been able to secure $4 million of state funding directed toward Western Michigan University so we can increase the capacity to train professionals, and so that, hopefully throughout this state, we will no longer have families waiting up to two years to get services."

Joining O'Brien for the announcement were State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker and State Rep. Aric Nesbitt, both of Lawton, who supported the funding decision. The new funding is part of the Michigan budget finalized in a conference committee in Lansing earlier this month.

O'Brien, who has a background in social work and business, noted that she and her two colleagues were among Michigan legislators who worked earlier to secure insurance coverage for autism services in Michigan. Once that was accomplished in 2012, she said, they began to hear too many stories about the shortage of service providers and long waits for families to get assistance. Allowing the situation to evolve over time and waiting for the supply of trained professionals to grow to match the need was not an option.

"By the time we built that capacity, it was going to be too late for too many children," O'Brien said. "We know that the earlier we reach them the better it is for families and kids."

The solution, she noted was "in my own backyard," where Western Michigan University already has an internationally known program in training people in behavioral health—especially those who serve those families that are dealing with autism.

WMU President John M. Dunn, who was at the O'Brien event, praised the Portage representative for her advocacy and for connecting the University's resources with a growing and urgent need in the broader community.

"Rep. O'Brien has been steadfast in her support for what we do here," Dunn said. "She is an advocate for putting the best resources of a research university to work to address very real community needs. This is a population that demands and deserves our commitment to ensure a well-trained force of professionals is available to help realize the full potential of those with autism."

Autism spectrum disorder and autism are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized—in varying degrees—by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated the prevalence of autism is rising and now affects one in 68 American children. Breaking this number down, the CDC estimates one in 42 boys have autism compared with one in 189 girls.

Behavior analysis at WMU

Behavior analysis specialists in WMU's Department of Psychology have a 30-plus year history of work with community partners to offer supervised field experience in the areas of developmental disabilities, autism and education. The University has awarded nearly 400 doctoral degrees and more than a thousand master's degrees to professionals working in developmental disabilities, autism, clinical psychology and industrial organizations psychology—all with a behavior analysis orientation. 

The efforts funded by the new state money will move forward under the direction of Dr. Stephanie Peterson, chair of the WMU Department of Psychology, and Dr. Wayne Fuqua, professor of psychology, whose longtime focus has been on the use of behavior analysis for the treatment of autism.