KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A large funding boost from the state of Michigan will help Western Michigan University's renowned Autism Center of Excellence expand services for individuals with severe behavioral challenges at the Kalamazoo Autism Center. The recently signed fiscal year 2024 state budget includes a $4 million investment in the center.
"It's pretty exciting," says Dr. Stephanie Peterson, director of the Autism Center of Excellence. "I think it's sending a powerful message to our community that there's a need for these services … and it's a vote of confidence in us that we can help fulfill at least some of that need and perhaps provide a model for other centers that we hope will open across the state."
Western's Autism Center of Excellence offers broad support to improve the lives of individuals with autism and their families as well as train professionals to treat autism spectrum disorder. It houses a number of initiatives, including:
The Kalamazoo Autism Center, where undergraduate and graduate Western students, through a close partnership with Western's Department of Psychology, have an opportunity to work one-on-one with children to provide intensive behavioral interventions.
The Providing Realistic Opportunities to Mentor On-site Training for Employment Skills (PROMOTES) program, which provides support to individuals with autism interested in getting jobs.
The Autism Services Center, which provides transition support for college students who are neurodiverse or have autism and need additional support.
The Michigan Autism Conference, which disseminates information and training on scientifically validated, behaviorally-based treatments to parents, caregivers and professionals who work with individuals with autism.
When the Kalamazoo Autism Center opened in 2016, families came from across the state to access the autism treatment services and additional support it offered. There remains a need for space to treat individuals with severe needs in a safe and effective manner. Peterson hopes some of the state funding can be used to secure a new location that can accommodate various populations in the same building.
"There's such a need in our state and our community for those kinds of services. And as the Autism Center of Excellence, we should be the place that people with the most severe needs look to for assistance," she says.
The funding will also increase training capabilities and allow the center to "start a pipeline of practitioners who are able to work with this population effectively," says Dr. J. Adam Bennett, director of operations at the Kalamazoo Autism Center.
"While treating young learners with autism is an important section of our field, one gap is the unseen and unmet needs of individuals who engage in severe, challenging behavior. This presents safety concerns that often need to be addressed at a higher priority than teaching learning readiness and social skills. So, not only will we now be able to serve those individuals, but we will also be able to build the workforce that can do so and expand our reach." adds Ali Schroeder, a doctoral student at Western and clinical director of the Kalamazoo Autism Center. She came to WMU from the May Institute in Boston, a globally recognized leader in applied behavioral services for individuals on the autism spectrum, specifically for the world-class training the University offers.
"Western has a really strong behavior analysis program—world renowned. A lot of people come here to get high-quality training," she says, also pointing out the unique opportunity at the Kalamazoo Autism Center for students—both graduate and undergraduate—to take an active role in treatment.
"One of the really nice things about our center is that we have students working with their clients for a significant period of time," Bennett says. While the center is affiliated with the Department of Psychology, students from other disciplines such as speech pathology, special education and occupational therapy are also able to put the skills they are developing into practice while they are working toward their degree.
"For students in other disciplines, their typical practicum exposures might be shorter in terms of the cumulative amount of time they can spend with children with autism," he continues. "But if those students come here, they get the opportunity to see how autism presents differently across clients and work with those clients for several hours per day. When you’re working with a client for that extended period of time, it’s a lot easier to see the progress they’re making on individual skills, and you have more opportunities to learn how to problem solve and deal with new challenges as they arise."
Find more information on the Autism Center of Excellence and the services it provides on its webpage.
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