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Saint Mary’s launches Master of Autism Studies program

| Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In 2018, Saint Mary’s will introduce new graduate program, a Master of Autism Studies. Although students cannot begin their coursework until 2019, the program will begin accepting applications and hosting workshops this calendar year.

“Everyone knows about the critical need for understanding and responding to autism in the world today,” Michael Waddell, program director, said in an email. “The Master of Autism Studies program responds to this need by examining autism from scientific, therapeutic and humanistic perspectives.”

The first proposal for the program was submitted in the spring of 2011, Waddell said.

This program speaks to the values of Saint Mary’s and specifically a Holy Cross education, said Susan Latham, a Master of Autism Studies faculty member and program director of the Master of Science in speech language pathology program.

I think it’s important that this is happening at Saint Mary’s because we are Holy Cross. And Holy Cross means that we are educating our students in a way that reflects the way that Fr. Moreau envisioned our work happening,” Latham said. “So for example, one characteristic of Holy Cross educators is respect for the individual in that we don’t concern ourselves with only the mind but also the heart, and that really speaks to our values and how we approach families with whom we work.”

Waddell said that throughout their time in the program, students will study autism in relation to both intervention approaches as well as other subjects.

“The Master of Autism Studies program will provide the interdisciplinary, autism-specific expertise students need to become leaders in autism-related fields,” he said. “Unlike other programs, the Master of Autism Studies will introduce students to the full range of evidence-based autism interventions, including — but not limited to — behavioralist approaches. And it will do all of these things in conversation with the Catholic tradition.”

Waddell said the program looks beyond just the science and examines the intersection of autism with the humanities.

“Autism therapies are important because, when done well, they can improve the quality of life of people who live with autism,” he said. “And, of course, in order to provide the best autism therapies, you have to understand the science of autism. But autism is about more than a diagnosis and treatment.  It affects every dimension of life. That’s why it’s important to think about autism from humanistic perspectives too.”

In these humanities courses, students will study autistic art and literature, as well as take into account how philosophical, theological, political and legal lenses can aid in the understanding of autism, Waddell said.

“The humanities courses in the autism studies program help us to think about autism as more than a diagnosis and treatment — to understand that autism shapes the lives and identities of human beings and is giving rise to a distinctive culture,” he said. “This is the only program I know of that takes such a broad approach to thinking about autism as part of the human experience.”

This specific approach is unique to Saint Mary’s. Most other programs across the nation look solely at the scientific aspects, and the holistic approach taken in this program is “visionary,” Latham said.

There aren’t other programs like this,” she added. “This is sort of groundbreaking, in having this degree being offered. It’s nice to know that right here, on this campus, we are creating something and are really passionate about something that I feel is visionary, that is not what everybody is doing.”

The program brings together faculty and faculty fellows who are experts in various aspects of autism studies, Waddell said.

“Every person teaching in the program has a significant interest in autism and brings a special kind of expertise to the table,” he said. “In my personal opinion, the quality of the faculty and fellows is one of the greatest strengths of the program. I want to take every course my colleagues will be teaching.”

On March 2, the program will host its first workshop. Waddell said workshops will be focused on intervention techniques, sometimes offering an opportunity for certification.

The autism intervention workshops bring world-renowned experts to campus to provide training in state-of-the-art autism interventions,” he said. “… We strive to represent the full range of evidence-based interventions rather than just limiting ourselves to one particular approach, as happens in many programs.”

Waddell said that many of the workshops offer students and community members the opportunity to achieve valuable certification in intervention methods at little to no cost. The upcoming one will be cosponsored by the Master of Autism Studies program, the Communicative Sciences and Disorders department and LOGAN Community Resources. It is free and open to all, as long as participants register online prior to the workshop.

This is the sort of thing that students can list on resumes and professionals can use to maintain licensure,” Waddell said. “The training would cost a lot of money for students and community members if they pursued it on their own, but it’s being offered for free in our workshops through the financial support of sponsors.”

Latham looks forward to sharing her passion for autism studies to both the community through workshops and through teaching, she said.

“It’s really encouraging to me to know that there are people that think that there is value in this as a graduate study and that they have that same level of compassion and concern for individuals on the autism spectrum,” she said.

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About Jordan Cockrum

Jordan Cockrum is a senior at Saint Mary's studying Communications and Humanistic Studies. She currently serves as Saint Mary's Editor.

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