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Asperger's program continues and expands with new grant support

RELEASED: Feb. 10, 2010

EAU CLAIRE — A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire program that helps teens and young adults with Asperger's syndrome develop the skills they need to succeed in work and life settings will continue and expand thanks to a $94,000 Medicaid Infrastructure Grant through the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.

This is the fourth consecutive year the project has received funding, bringing the total Medicaid Infrastructure Grant funding to $311,000. By the end of 2011, the project will have received nearly $400,000 through the grant program.

Dr. Kristine Retherford
Dr. Kristine Retherford

"This is an underserved population with needs, that if not addressed, will keep them from being successful at living independently and being successful in the workplace," Dr. Kristine Retherford, chair of the university's communication sciences and disorders department, said of area young people who have Asperger's syndrome. "This program brings together campus and community resources in a way that helps people with Asperger's syndrome develop the social skills they need to succeed in home and work settings."

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.

"These are high functioning individuals but they have trouble because of their social and organization difficulties," Retherford said, adding that the number of young people diagnosed with the disorder is increasing. "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. Through this program, we help them learn the social and vocational communication skills they need to keep a job or to function in school."

The "Facilitating Functional Social and Vocational Communication Skills in Young Adults with Asperger's Syndrome and Related Conditions" program established at UW-Eau Claire in 2007 already has directly or indirectly served dozens of young people and their families.

"The responses to the services we have provided so far have been overwhelmingly positive from parents, students and service providers," Retherford said. "More parents and young adults are seeking information about participation in the program. We are thrilled that this grant will allow us to continue with our efforts, while also allowing us to move forward with additional initiatives that will help us address newly identified needs."

With the new grant dollars, the program will serve even more young people and expand the services provided, Retherford said. The three-year continuation grant will enable the program to directly serve 12-18 young people each year, and up to 18 people each summer through Campus Camp, a weeklong immersion experience that exposes participants to campus life.

The grant also will allow program leaders to move forward with new initiatives, such as using technology to help participants better learn appropriate social and organization skills in different settings, Retherford said.

Adolescence and young adulthood can present challenges for many of us, but for people with Asperger's, these challenges are often magnified," said Kay Hagedorn, a project director for UW-Eau Claire's Asperger's program. "The MIG project provides much-needed support for these individuals as they explore their unique strengths and challenges, set individual goals, and plan their educational and career paths."

The grant also provides a peer group for those with Asperger's and fosters a sense of acceptance and belonging, said Julie Miller, a project director for the Asperger's program.

In addition to the young adults participating in the program, many others also will be served as program leaders share information related to Asperger's with community agencies, post-secondary schools, and other organizations, including workforce development groups.

Faculty and graduate students in communication sciences and disorders already work with many community service providers, schools and other organizations, Retherford said. Faculty, staff and students from the university's Services for Students with Disabilities office, kinesiology department and recreation therapy programs also are involved with UW-Eau Claire's Asperger's program, she said.

In addition to UW-Eau Claire, agencies involved in the project are 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; United Cerebral Palsy of West Central Wisconsin; and ASPIRE, a family support group.

The campus-community connections are critical to the success of the program, Retherford said.

"We work with the young people on our campus but we also get them out in the community," Retherford said. "They open checking accounts, do volunteer work and are in other social situations that help them develop a set of functioning communication skills. There are lots of practical, real life experiences that help lay the groundwork to develop their social skills."

For details, contact Dr. Kris Retherford at 715-836-4905 or retherk@uwec.edu; Kay Hagedorn at 715-836-4054 or hagedoke@uwec.edu; or Julie Miller at 715-836-4895 or millerja@uwec.edu.

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JB/DW

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