Course of Action New Autism Degree Program at Elms Is Generating Strong Interest

As a speech-language assistant at Holyoke’s Center School, Sarah Casagrande works with many special needs students, many of whom suffer from autism.

She told The Healthcare News that she finds her work with such individuals fascinating and extremely rewarding, and wants very much to take it to a higher level.

“For a long time now, I think people have thought that society and students with autism really didn’t mix,” she explained. “I do a lot of work with taking my kids into the community, and I wanted to find ways it could become more accessible to them. I want to learn how to make society work for these individuals, how to remove limitations placed on people just because they have a diagnosis.”

With those goals in mind, Casagrande made a decision several months ago to enroll in a new master’s degree program in Autism Spectrum Disorders at Elms College. She starts classes in September and is scheduled to graduate in August 2012.

By then, she believes her time both in the classrooms at Elms and in other classrooms working with autistic students and gaining more hands-on experience, she will have given her the insight and expertise to take her career to that higher plane she described, and involve both children with autism and their parents.

“There’s a lot of information available to parents, but I think they sometimes get lost in that sometimes,” she explained. “I believe this degree will enable me to not only work with the kids in the school, but also be the bridge to home and work with parents, help them understand more, and maybe be a voice for them if they need a voice.”

There are a number of people with career goals and aspirations similar to Casagrande’s, said Kathryn James, chair of the Division of Communication Sciences & Disorders (CSD) at Elms, adding that this explains both the need for the new master’s program and its strong start since its inception in 2008.

Indeed, the program has been at or near capacity since its start (there are openings for this fall, however), she said, noting that such interest no doubt results from a pronounced spike in the reported incidence of autism — from one in 5,000 in the 1970s to one in 150 in 2008. There are a number of theories concerning this surge, including genetics, she continued, adding that, although increased awareness of the disorder certainly plays a part, that phenomenon alone cannot explain the exponential rise in reported incidence in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

But whatever the reason or reasons, she said, there is no doubt that demand for people who are well-versed in the speech, language, and educational needs of people with autism is rising, and will continue to do so for the immediate future.

In response, Elms has partnered with the River Street Autism Program at Coltsville in Hartford, Conn. to create the only master’s degree offering in autism spectrum disorders in New England, and one of only a few in the country. For this, the latest installment in its Career Focus series, The Healthcare News looks at the program and at the doors it is expected to open for people who earn that degree.

Learning Curves

As she talked about the work she’s been doing at Center School since graduating from Elms in 2008, Casagrande spoke with notable passion about her interaction with students diagnosed with autism.

“The kids are fascinating to work with — you’ll never find two that are close to the same,” she said. “Kids with autism have a different spirit about them, and I enjoy working with them very much. I enjoy their company, and I enjoy being able to find that key can unlock them a little bit.”

There are many people with similar sentiments, said James, adding that the new master’s program was added to give such individuals more flexibility and advanced training as they go about pursuing career opportunities in what is obviously a growth area within health care.

Tracing the steps that led to creation of the new program, James started by referencing one of many acronyms she would put to use: C.A.G. That’s short for certificate of advanced graduate study. These are not graduate degrees, but rather post-graduate options for individuals who want to attain additional skills.

Elms began offering such certificates within its broad CSD program in 2000. Eventually, two offerings involving autism were developed — a certificate in autism speech disorders with and without required practica, and a certificate in CSD with a concentration in autism spectrum disorders.

“Soon, though, we knew we needed to put together a master’s program in ASD,” said James, adding that the certificates, while certainly valuable, were not going to be enough for many people to significantly advance their careers.

The college started offering both the certificates and the master’s degree in 2008, with the latter proving to be much more popular.

James said the first classes of students to enroll in the ASD offerings have been extremely diverse, and to make the point, she referenced a sheet charting the backgrounds of those 50 involved with either the master’s degree or certificate programs.

While more than a third have degrees in Speech-language Pathology, Psychology, or Special Education, 17 other fields are represented, including everything from Administrative Justice to Art Therapy; from German to Mathematics.

“We wanted variety, and we certainly achieved that,” she said, adding that the vast majority of students have been in the workforce for many years, and many already have graduate degrees in other areas of study.

The first few classes are also diverse in terms of age and geography, with most coming from Western Mass. and Northern Conn., but some from the central and eastern parts of the Bay State as well.

Students enrolled in the master’s program must take a wide variety of required courses, including Autism Spectrum Disorders, Positive Approaches to Behavioral Interventions in ASD, Use of Pragmatic Language for Social Communication, and Social Communication in the Preschool/Primary Environment.

Meanwhile, electives include everything from Sensory Integration Intervention Techniques to Advanced Technology for Educators.

Most students also opt for practica that are required for the 36-credit master’s program and optional for the 30-credit model. These take place at the River Street Autism Program, with instructors paid for by Elms.

Those who graduate from the ASD programs may choose to continue to work toward becoming a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) by completing a total of 1,500 hours of practica and sitting for an examination, said James, noting that most will choose this option.

With that designation and the concentration of study within the ASD programs, and especially the master’s degree, graduates should be able to find good-paying jobs, and advance, in a variety of settings, including public and private schools and private agencies devoted to the care and education of those with autism, she noted, adding quickly that there are no current standards for those working in autism, and thus many don’t have much formal training and education.

“That’s one of the reasons we started the master’s program — there is very little formal training for autism,” she explained. “We have people in the program who have been autism consultants who have maybe a course or two in that area, because until very recently, there weren’t any.”

There has been legislation filed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other states, however, that will require that, to bill for insurance, those who provides autism care must be a board-certified behavioral analyst, she continued, adding that those who graduate from the Elms program and go on to receive that certification will be well-positioned for career opportunities.

Degree of Progress

Casagrande told The Healthcare News that she’s not sure where the career path she’s on will eventually take her.

What she does know is that she finds her work with those with autism both fascinating and highly rewarding, and wants to find more ways to come up with keys that will, as she said, unlock individuals diagnosed with that illness.

The new master’s degree program will help her do that, while also unlocking more of her potential to excel in this growing field.

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