University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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UW-Eau Claire Expands Its Programs that
Serve Children with Autism

 MAILED:  Oct. 18, 2004

EAU CLAIRE — An innovative program that pairs University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire psychology students with children with autism and their families has been so successful that the program has expanded to serve additional children and provide even more university students with real-life experiences.

For two years, UW-Eau Claire has been bringing children with autism and their families to campus for intensive behavior intervention sessions. This summer, the program expanded and now offers in-home services, which involve students working with children and families in their homes for up to 35 hours a week, said Dr. Kevin Klatt, assistant professor of psychology and coordinator of the program.

"I'm sure that this is the only program of its kind in the country," Klatt said. "Few university programs are working with autism. And I'm sure we're the only ones with undergraduate students providing services to families on campus and in homes."

When a child is diagnosed with autism, the family can apply for state and federal dollars to help fund in-home therapy sessions, Klatt said. But it typically takes four- to six-months for funding to kick in, a significant amount of time for a child to go without the intense behavioral intervention that is important to a child's ability to function long-term, Klatt said. Research shows that children with autism make the most gains if they receive intensive behavioral intervention — at least 30 hours a week — before age five. The university's on-campus program provides the therapy needed until the funding is secured for the in-home sessions, he said.

In the past, Twin Cities businesses hired UW-Eau Claire students as interns to provide the in-home treatment to children in Eau Claire, Klatt said. Because the students performed so well, the companies often offered them jobs when their internships ended. As a result, there were fewer opportunities for students new to the program to secure internships, he said.

To ensure students do have in-home internship opportunities, Klatt began his own company, Applied Behavior Intervention Services LLC, which provides in-home services to area families. The student therapists working for his company are paid with state and federal dollars, the same as students working for the Twin Cities companies, he said, noting that the other companies also continue to employ some of his students.

"There is an incredible demand for people in this field," Klatt said. "Wisconsin alone could use hundreds of people trained in this area."

Currently, nine UW-Eau Claire students are working with three area children in their homes, and another 10 students are working with four families who bring their children to campus, Klatt said, adding that students also work with two children at the campus day-care, helping them learn social and classroom skills to prepare for kindergarten.

"It is completely rewarding to see a child progressing and learning," Julie Ackerlund, a junior psychology major from Colfax, said of her work with two autistic children. "To know that I'm the one who taught them these things is just amazing."

Ackerlund was in a basic psychology class when a professor explained the behavior analysis emphasis and showed a film about autistic children. "I knew right then that this is what I want to do with my life," she said.

Her work with the on-campus and in-home programs has confirmed her career choice. "These kids and their parents have become like family to me," Ackerlund said. "It's hard to even think about graduating and leaving them."

Children can now start receiving services in the on-campus program, and continue the sessions in their homes once the state and federal funding is approved, Klatt said. As a result, he and his students can work with a child over a period of time, which is meaningful to the students, the child and the family.

"It's incredibly rewarding for students to see how a child progresses over a period of time," Klatt said, noting that several students work with each child. "The sessions are very intense and very draining, but also very rewarding."

The hands-on experiences she's gained as an undergraduate student will be invaluable to her in graduate school, said Ackerlund, who hopes to eventually earn her doctorate and someday teach psychology at a university-level.

"Undergraduate students at other schools are not having these same experiences," Ackerlund said, noting that UW-Eau Claire students are the only undergraduates who present research at the Mid-American Association for Behavioral Analysis annual conference. "I'll be way ahead when I get to graduate school because the things I'm doing now are typically done at a graduate level."

The autism program is exactly the kind of thing that an interactive, public regional university should be doing, said UW-Eau Claire Interim Provost Steve Tallant.

"The program provides our students with enriching experiences that help them grow intellectually and personally," Tallant said. "And the students are making significant contributions to these children and their families. When we talk about a strong university being important to Wisconsin, these are the kinds of programs we're talking about."

UW-Eau Claire is the only school in the UW System (and one of few nationally) that has developed a behavioral emphasis that prepares students to pursue national certification in applied behavioral analysis.

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JB

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 Judy Berthiaume, Director
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
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Updated: November 3, 2004