In the basement of an elementary school in Pittsford, an after school group called Lego Club had their weekly meeting. As the other children furiously built their Halloween designs to match the weekly theme, a blonde boy with glasses sat and worked quietly by himself. When it came time to share final creations with the group, Pierson chose to pass. Pierson has autism and, like many individuals on the spectrum, prefers working alone, finding social interactions and the nuanced, unspoken rules that accompany them challenging to navigate.
Meghan Grant, a Nazareth College physical therapy graduate student, had the opportunity to meet Pierson and his family through the college's Interdisciplinary Specialty Program in Autism (I-SPAN). Created by faculty members Shanna Jamanis, associate professor and chair of the childhood education department, and Dawn Vogler-Elias, associate professor and graduate program director in communication sciences and disorders, the program was designed to address the paucity of course work in higher education that addresses the unique needs of the autistic population.
I-SPAN is a series of three graduate level courses open to students in the speech-language pathology, social work, occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing, or any of Nazareth's myriad education programs. The program is designed to help professionals become better supporters of individuals on the autism spectrum. Unique in its interdisciplinary approach and integration of a family experience project, the program explores topics such as the history of autism, diagnosis, interventions, and autistic culture. When creating the program Jamanis noted, "It was important to us that we examined autism from multiple perspectives, allowed participants to connect with families, and included the voices of people on the autism spectrum in our program. I-SPAN emphasizes the assets that individuals on the autism spectrum bring to our communities and allows participants to explore ways for channeling these strengths in schools and the workplace."
A union of classroom-based lecture and fieldwork with families of and individuals on the autism spectrum, the first class in the series, Exploring Autism from Multiple Perspectives, culminates with a poster sharing event. Throughout the fall semester, participants have spent time with families in the community observing how having a child on the spectrum challenges them as a family as well as the strengths and strategies the family has developed to support their child. These observations and reflections were presented by all members of the class in a professional poster presentation that family participants are invited to attend. The McQuillen's and their son Pierson participate in the program with the hope of helping the next generation of autism educators: "We think it is really important to pay it forward by opening our home and sharing our story. There were so many families in the early days of autism research that were willing to be open which allowed for research and education about autism that has helped to shape our experience with Pierson. We owe those families a huge debt and by doing this we feel like we are giving back and hopefully helping other families in the same way."
The project is designed to give those who typically interact with families and individuals on the spectrum in a professional setting an opportunity to do so in a more personal setting. Grant, physical therapy '17G, noted "I'm used to interacting with individuals on the spectrum in a very clinical environment as a professional so it was great to get the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, so to speak, and experience things I never normally would as a physical therapist like doing homework or going out to dinner."
The I-SPAN program gives interested professionals the opportunity to become experts in autism, not only in their unique professional roles, but in supporting the autistic individual and the family in all aspects of their life across the lifespan. The interdisciplinary, experiential learning design prepares future professionals for the reality of special education and related support services in a constantly changing education and health care environment.
Nazareth College's academic strengths cross an unusually broad spectrum of 60 majors, including education, health and human services, management, the fine arts, music, theater, math and science, foreign languages, and the liberal arts. The coeducational, religiously independent, classic campus in a charming suburb of Rochester, N.Y. challenges and supports 2,000 undergrads and 800 graduate students. Nazareth is recognized nationally for its Fulbright global student scholars and commitment to civic engagement. Rigorous programs, an uncommon core, experiential learning, career skills, and a global focus prepare graduates for not just one job, but for their life's work.