Autism Across the Lifespan

by Julie Long

Nazareth College is offering a new interdisciplinary graduate level program that prepares professionals to work with individuals with autism across the lifespan. The Interdisciplinary Specialty Program in Autism at Nazareth (I-SPAN) began last fall with the first of a three-course sequence. Shanna Jamanis, Ph.D., associate professor in inclusive childhood education, and Dawn Vogler-Elias, Ph.D., assistant professor in communication sciences and disorders, are co-chairs of the program.

I-SPAN is open to both matriculated graduate students and also non-matriculated graduate level students who are looking to gain continuing education specialization. Students who elect to take the courses for credit will earn three credits per class. Both credit and non-credit bearing students will earn a local certificate given by Nazareth College.

The first course in the nine-credit series is Exploring Autism from Multiple Perspectives, appropriate for a variety of professionals working with autism who would like to increase their expertise in this specialty area. A unique component of this course pairs each student with a family who has a child with autism. The student will interact with the family experience and reflect on a variety of activities, such as shopping or a movie, to gain a different perspective.

“We found in our surveys of families that, in addition to providing evidence-based intervention, it was also important to see how a teacher or professional connects with their child on a personal level,” says Vogler-Elias. “That’s one reason why we created I-SPAN. It’s a unique program to teach professionals more about the autism from a person- and family-centered perspective.”

Two more courses in the program will run in the spring and summer semesters of 2014. The second course, Autism Supports Across the Lifespan, focuses on evidence-based strategies and supports for individuals with autism. Emphasis is placed on evaluating and implementing supports for younger children with autism as well as older children and adults using an interdisciplinary and person-centered perspective. The third and final course, Autism: A Contemporary Lens, is a capstone course allowing students to demonstrate their leadership in the field by creating a project that gives back to the local autism community.

“Our program is really strength-based, where we teach how to look at the strengths of each person,” says Jamanis. “People with autism think differently, a concept called neurodiversity. We view that as a strength and we want to help others understand ways to capitalize on those strengths as they support people with autism.”

The I-SPAN program is unique to colleges and universities in the Rochester region. While higher education institutions are required to offer a three-hour training on autism for professionals entering an education-related field, it is usually embedded within one course and doesn’t take the interdisciplinary and person-centered approach that I-SPAN does.

Julie Long is the assistant director of media relations in Nazareth’s marketing department.

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