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Serving youth with Asperger's

By Janice Wisner

During twice-weekly sessions led by graduate student Tiffany Leighton, Kayla Pocernich and the three other teens in her Asperger's group participate in activities designed to help them deal with various social situations, such as getting a job, going to college and developing relationships.

Making friends. Dating. Interviewing for a job. Most teenagers take these social interactions for granted.

Youth with Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder in which people have difficulty interacting socially, aren't so lucky. They typically have major difficulties in social situations. Their odd behavior often isolates them at school, and they have trouble adjusting to most workplaces.

"This is an underserved population with needs that will keep them from being successful if not addressed," said Kristine Retherford, chair of the communication sciences and disorders department at UW-Eau Claire. "Some of these kids are so bright that they don't qualify for special education. Without intervention, they won't have the communication skills to be successful in the workplace."

In February Retherford's department initiated a pilot program titled "Facilitating Functional Social-Communication Skills in Adolescents." Through the program, faculty and graduate students in communication sciences and disorders work directly with eight teens and offer support services to another eight teens and young adults with Asperger's.

Funded by a $60,000 Wisconsin Medicaid Infrastructure Grant through the Department of Health and Family Services, the program is housed at UW-Eau Claire but involves 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're taking the lead, but we're partnering with community resources to make it work. I'm not aware of another program like this in the state or country."

In addition to the university, agencies involved 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; and ASPIRE, a family support group.

"What makes this program unique is that it's pulling together agencies within the community that are likely to make these individuals more successful in life, so it's not just speech-language pathologists who are helping with social communication skills, it's a team of agencies and professionals," Retherford said.

"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 in Eau Claire who serves as a project consultant.

In her job at Sacred Heart, Hosmann worked with teens and young adults with Asperger's 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.

That's when UW-Eau Claire got involved. Initially the university's role was to write 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.

Already the program is making a difference for the young people it serves.

Twice weekly Sandy Pocernich drives her 18-year-old daughter, Kayla, to UW-Eau Claire's Center for Communication Disorders, where Kayla is one of the eight teens with Asperger's in the pilot program.

Since last February, under the guidance of communication disorders faculty and graduate students, Kayla and the others have been working on developing a toolbox of skills to deal with various social situations, such as getting a job, going to college and developing relationships.

Kayla, who graduated with honors from Altoona High School in May, personifies the problems faced by adolescents with Asperger's. Despite a lifetime of unusual behavior and difficulty in school, she was 13 before she was finally diagnosed with high-functioning autism with Asperger's syndrome.

Recently enrolled in the health technology program at Eau Claire's Chippewa Valley Technical College, Kayla struggles with obsessive-compulsive behaviors, such as picking at her skin and smoothing her hair. She is easily distracted and ultrasensitive to touch. Changes in routine are difficult. Her mother said she's never had a friend, never been invited to a party, never had a phone call.

"There is no price tag I could put on this opportunity to learn," said Sandy Pocernich, who observes the twice-weekly sessions in order to learn as much as she can about the strategies used there. "We work on the weekly lessons at home, practicing how to converse, how to look someone in the eye."

Under the leadership of graduate student Tiffany Leighton, Kayla and the other three members of her group practice interviewing for jobs, opening checking accounts, doing volunteer work and experiencing other social situations to help them lay the groundwork for developing their social skills. Leighton uses video clips, role playing, trips into the community and live demonstrations to help them learn.

For Kayla, the practice paid off when she landed her first job last spring. Following graduation she began working 10 hours a week at the Altoona Public Library, where she shelves books and does other assigned tasks.

"The great thing about the grant is that it's pulling in Career Services and other university resources to benefit these kids," Sandy Pocernich said. "I just can't say enough about how important it is to us and the other families."

Donna Schemm, whose son Isaac, 14, was diagnosed with Asperger's in kindergarten, represents parents as a member of the planning group for the new program, an experience that she describes as amazing.

"It's a privilege to be part of this program," she said. "Sitting around the table with all those agencies who are there to help your child is very exciting."

Today Isaac is a sophomore at Eau Claire Memorial High School and part of the younger group, which meets twice weekly at the university.

"He's enjoying it and generalizing the skills the group practices," said Schemm, who works as a speech-language pathologist at Sacred Heart Hospital. "Our kids don't see the big picture, and change is hard for them. I'm so grateful for this program. Isaac has progressed. I'm seeing so much more maturity and growth, especially in the last six months."

Following completion of the pilot, Retherford said additional funding will be sought to extend the pilot to other regions of the state and to extend the opportunity to develop the toolbox of skill sets to middle school and elementary school students with Asperger's and related conditions as well as adults. Ultimately, the toolbox of skills will be implemented by speech-language pathologists in public school settings.

"If we can help remove barriers to employment for these young people, they have a much better chance of leading independent, productive lives," she said.

Janice Wisner is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

Judy Berthiaume contributed to this story.

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Preparing specialists, helping the community

More than 25 million Americans have speech, language or hearing disorders that interfere with daily communication. Since the mid-1960s, the UW-Eau Claire communication sciences and disorders department has provided educational programming for undergraduate and graduate students who want to become speech-language pathologists or audiologists and who will become specialists in diagnosing and treating communication problems, which is one of the top 20 fastest growing professions in the United States.

The undergraduate program prepares students for graduate study in communication disorders. The graduate program prepares students to work as speech-language pathologists in a variety of educational, health care and social service settings. It is accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation of the American Board of Examiners in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Approximately 50 students earn the undergraduate degree each year; approximately 75 percent immediately enter a graduate program to pursue the master's degree in communication sciences and disorders. Fifteen graduate students earn the master of science degree each year, and many have secured employment by the time they graduate.

Over the years, the department has undertaken many significant steps to ensure that its students profit from the most up-to-date and well-considered curriculum. Its work on curricular review and development is informed by substantial immersion in research and analysis of learning theory. The department takes full advantage of the expertise of the faculty in both basic and applied areas. The faculty strive to educate and train competent, compassionate and collaborative professionals with their primary goal being to prepare undergraduate students for graduate work in speech-language pathology and to prepare graduate students to become certified as professional speech-language pathologists.

At the heart of the department's teaching and learning efforts is its on-campus clinical facility, the Center for Communication Disorders. This living-learning "laboratory" provides unique practical educational experiences for both undergraduate and graduate students while also providing an important community service to the residents of the Chippewa Valley and beyond. The center provides evaluation and treatment to children and adults from age 2 to 90. With practical experiences to enhance their education, it is no wonder that the pass rate for UW-Eau Claire CSD graduate students on the national certification exam is 98 percent on the first attempt, compared with a national average of 79 percent.

 

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