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UW-Eau Claire to Launch Pilot Program to
Serve Area Youth with Asperger's Syndrome

RELEASED: Jan. 23, 2007

Kristine Retherford Angie Sterling-Orth
Kristine Retherford
Angie Sterling-Orth

EAU CLAIRE — This spring the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Center for Communication Disorders will launch a first-of-its-kind pilot program designed to help area teens and young adults with Asperger's syndrome develop the skills they need to succeed in work and life settings.

"This is an underserved population with needs, that if not addressed, will keep them from being successful at living independently," said Dr. Kristine Retherford, chair of the university's communication sciences and disorders department. "With a growing number of children and young adults being identified with Asperger's, providing quality services is more important than ever."

Asperger's syndrome is a developmental disorder in which people have difficulties understanding how to interact socially. People with Asperger's have some traits of autism, especially impaired social interaction skills and a preference for routine. However, children with Asperger's usually start to talk around age 2, and they have normal to above-normal intelligence.

Through the "Facilitating Functional Social-Communication Skills in Adolescents" program, faculty and graduate students in communication sciences and disorders will work directly with eight teens and offer support services to another 10 teens and young adults who have Asperger's, said Angie Sterling-Orth, a lecturer in communication sciences and disorders. Those receiving services will be between the ages of 14 and 24, she said.

"These are high functioning individuals but they have trouble because of their social difficulties," Sterling-Orth said. "We will help them learn the social-communication skills they need to keep a job or to function in school."

The program, funded through a $60,000 grant from Wisconsin's Medicaid program, is unusual because it will be housed at UW-Eau Claire but will involve numerous community service providers, Retherford said.

"If this program works, we may see similar projects in every Wisconsin community with a university campus," Retherford said. "We'll take the lead, but we'll pull together community resources to make it work. I'm not aware of another program like this in the state or the country."

In addition to the university, agencies involved include the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services; CESA 10; Center for Independent Living for Western Wisconsin; Eau Claire Area School District; Division of Vocational Rehabilitation; Eau Claire County Department of Human Services; Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire; Chippewa County Department of Human Services; and ASPIRE, a family support group.

"It's an exciting undertaking and I'm thrilled to be a part of it," said Carol Hosmann, a speech-language pathologist at Sacred Heart Hospital who will serve as a project consultant.

In her job at Sacred Heart, Hosmann has worked with teens and young adults with Asperger's and related conditions for six years. At its peak, the hospital's program served 30 youth, she said. But in March 2006, many of those served were denied authorization for medical assistance funding after their condition was determined to be "not medically necessary," she said.

A concerned parent contacted state legislators and government officials, several of whom attended a parent support group for children with Asperger's, Hosmann said. As a result, the state identified a grant-based funding source to support the services, she said.

Initially, the university's role was to be limited to writing the grant proposal to secure funding for the services, Retherford said. But as the project evolved, it became clear the university could and should play a much bigger role, she said, adding that the state supported the university's decision to take the lead on the initiative.

Many of the same families who were not served in the Sacred Heart program because of the funding issue will be served by the new program, Retherford said.

"While many no longer take part in our program due to lack of funding, this project provides hope for these families," Hosmann said. "They know we are not forgetting about them, but are looking for other ways to provide assistance. This project will allow us to continue to examine how we can best prepare this population for a successful and productive life."

Those served in the program will come from Eau Claire and other western Wisconsin communities, Retherford said. Helping them succeed in the workplace will benefit the individuals but also area employers, she said.

"People with Asperger's can exhibit a range of inadequate social interaction skills that can make it difficult for them to succeed in a workplace," Retherford said. "But with services and support, they have great potential to acquire new skills and to modify their behavior in ways that will allow them to work and live independently."

Teens receiving direct services will come to the university's Center for Communication Disorders twice a week during the spring and fall semesters, Sterling-Orth said. A summer program also will be developed, she said. Participants will be divided into groups according to their ages, and each group will have a graduate student assigned to work with them, she said.

"We'll work with them in the center but we also want to get them out in the community," Retherford said. "They'll open checking accounts, do volunteer work and be in other social situations that will help them develop a set of functioning communication skills. There are lots of practical, real life experiences that can help lay the groundwork to develop their social skills."

The project also includes plans to better educate schools and employers about Asperger's syndrome, Sterling-Orth said. For example, the project team will develop a "Functional Communication Profile," which will outline social-communication expectations at different stages of development, she said, noting that such a tool will be of particular use in schools. Other initiatives in the grant proposal include developing an informational Web site, leading training sessions for regional employers and developing a plan to provide services to elementary and middle school-age youth with Asperger's, she said.

The project provides an important opportunity for UW-Eau Claire students who are planning careers in the field of speech-language pathology, Retherford said.

"We are excited because this fits so well with our mission to provide needed services to the community and to give our students opportunities to work with cutting-edge services in the field of speech-language pathology," Retherford said.

Several graduate students already have asked to be part of the program, including a student whose brother has Asperger's, Sterling-Orth said.

"It's a fabulous opportunity for everyone," Sterling-Orth said. "The teens and young adults in the program will receive much-needed services and support. And our students will develop a set of skills and experiences that will benefit those they work with in the future."

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JB

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