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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Autism Resources needed in southern New Mexico

While the Las Cruces public school district provides a range of services to meet the needs of children with autism and a handful of community agencies provide services for families, New Mexico State University professor Kathleen Cronin says there is a lack of resources available in southern New Mexico.



New Mexico State University professor Kathleen Cronin, who specializes in autism, reviews data results of a survey conducted last fall to determine the number of children affected by autism and the services offered in southern New Mexico. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

It is nationally reported that the number of children with autism has increased to one in every 150 children, and according to Cronin, New Mexico is greatly affected.

Her first task when arriving at NMSU in August 2008 was to identify how prevalent autism was in southern New Mexico and what kind of services were needed by these children, their families and their schools.

To jumpstart autism initiatives, Cronin put together an informational survey that was mailed out to superintendents and directors of special education in 37 school districts that Cronin identified as being in southern New Mexico. Surveys also were sent to all members of the Alliance for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and local agencies that provide services for families with autism through Developmental Disabilities Waiver programs. The surveys were used to determine how many children are identified with autism in southern New Mexico.

"The surveys indicated there are about 300 cases of autism identified in southern New Mexico school districts and we believe there are more who are yet to be identified," Cronin said.

The surveys also were used to identify what services are available to families through the public school districts and community agencies, and what ability the school districts have for completing multidisciplinary evaluations of children suspected of having an autism disorder.

Cronin explains that there are several related disorders that fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder including Autistic Disorder, Rett Syndrome, Asperger's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified.

"Autism is a triad of impairments affecting the social, communication and behavioral skills, with a person showing signs and symptoms by the age of three," Cronin said.

Surveys results showed that public schools districts provided services including speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychological services and behavior support, academic instruction, nutrition counseling and social work services. For some services, school districts have to contract through private agencies. Even with these various services in place, survey results showed a high demand for additional services.

School districts were asked what role NMSU could take on in areas dealing with autism. Among the services requested, training for school district teachers, educational assistants, administrators, and support staff was most requested. Other services needed were consultation for school districts, parent training and development of a parent resource center, in-home behavior intervention programs and intervention programs held on campus for children with autism and comprehensive multidisciplinary evaluations.

The New Mexico State University Special Education and Communication Disorders Autism Initiative was created to address autism issues in southern New Mexico. This initiative contains eight components, which are directly related to the services requested by the school districts. They include the Southern New Mexico Autism Project (SNAP), Home and Parent Training, Teacher Training, Support Staff Training, Research, Diagnostic Clinic, Intervention and Therapy and Classroom Consultations.

With the support of state Sen. John Arthur Smith and state Rep. Dona Irwin during the 2008 New Mexico Legislative Session, the NMSU Communication Disorders Program was able to launch SNAP to meet the needs of families in southern New Mexico directly affected by autism. The program was designed to be implemented in three phases.

SNAP services were first conducted in the fall of 2008 and began with a pilot project that provided free speech therapy and intervention services. This project, held in Deming, N.M., included a pilot group of six children from Deming and Silver City, N.M. In a period of 12 sessions, all six children showed significant progress in increased language, behavioral and articulation skills.

Cronin presented a full-day workshop on structured teaching for children with autism in late February, in which 51 participants from the Deming, Lordsburg and Silver City areas were educated on creating schedules and visual trainings for their children. Teachers from the Lordsburg, Cobre, Deming and Silver City school districts are offered services from SNAP to promote a child's development in the classroom environment.

As part of the SNAP's outreach into schools, Cronin explains how an identification team is being trained in which an autism assessment of a child would be provided for both the medical and educational criteria, a combination that is a first of its kind.

"This team of professionals from the university, medical facilities, and Las Cruces Public Schools will not only provide the medical and psychological diagnosis of autism, but also be able to determine eligibility for school district services. This should make it easier and less complicated for families to acquire the services their child needs," Cronin said.

NMSU is also taking steps to build its curriculum by offering classes with an emphasis on autism. Cronin, along with other faculty, are in the process of seeking approval to offer a minor in autism for students studying special education and communication disorders.

"We are also interested in applying for Personnel Preparation Grants to help support graduate students who want to study autism and be involved in ongoing research projects," Cronin said.

While NMSU is in the preliminary stages of its autism programs, Cronin said she hopes to expand initiatives on campus including therapy with horses. Speech and occupational therapy integrations also are scheduled to be implemented this summer.

For the month of April, Cronin, other faculty and students are celebrating Autism Awareness Month by holding events on the university campus throughout the month. Autism Awareness Month has been celebrated since the 1970s. The U.S. recognizes the month of April as an opportunity for the public to be educated about autism and the issues within the autism community.

For more information on these autism initiatives, call (575) 646-2402.