Auburn University named to Alabama's Regional Autism Network

Published: October 21, 2016
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Auburn University has been named one of three universities in the state's Regional Autism Network, which officially launched Oct. 1 under the direction of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, lead agency of the Alabama Interagency Autism Coordinating Council.

The Auburn network, directed by Doris Hill, will be housed in the College of Education's Regional Inservice Center. Other networks include the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of South Alabama in Mobile. All three institutions have long histories of working with people with disabilities, including autism. There is a plan for the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Huntsville to join the network in the near future.

"We have a very specific charge from the Alabama Legislature in terms of what the network should do," Hill said. "The most important of these is to connect families to services in state and local agencies and school districts. Although the network itself will not provide direct services to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, we will provide individual and direct family assistance, technical support and consultation, professional training and public education programs to increase awareness about autism and autism-related disabilities."

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and Autism Speaks, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that is characterized by behavioral challenges, deficits in socialization and communication and a restricted range of activities and interests. The level of impairment varies greatly from individual to individual, as does the response to intervention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 1 percent of the world's population has an autism diagnosis, with an estimated one in 68 children in the United States identified with autism spectrum disorder. Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed than girls, with the disorder affecting one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls. The number of individuals diagnosed with the disorder in the United States has increased by nearly 120 percent since 2000, making it the fastest-growing developmental disability and an urgent public health care need. This increase may also be attributed to the broadening of the diagnostic characteristics of the disorder as well as broadened public awareness.

"The Legislature provided us with initial funding of $75,000 to begin this network," Hill said. "Our network is the largest of the three and will serve 21 counties, including the counties of Autauga, Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Chambers, Coffee, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Dallas, Elmore, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Montgomery, Pike, Russell and Wilcox. We have already conducted regional assessments to gather data and information to gain a good understanding of the resources, strengths, and needs of our area. These assessments were also conducted to develop community and regional relationships, which will further nurture the statewide system of care for individuals impacted by ASD."

Hill said Auburn has several built-in assets to support such a network, perhaps none more important than being housed in the East Alabama Regional Inservice Center on campus, which is providing space, staff, faculty time and other infrastructure to make the regional network a reality.

Auburn also has a program for providing board certification in behavior analysis through the Department of Psychology, a Special Education program with expertise in autism, a new medical school–the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine–interested in collaborating on clinical and research projects in autism, a School of Kinesiology with faculty who focus in autism interventions, a department specializing in communication disorders–prevalent in children with autism–and clinical services offered through the Psychology Department and the Auburn University Speech and Hearing Clinic.

"We also hope to collaborate with Human Development and Family Studies and the Center for Health Ecology and Equity Research committee, which has a focus on health inequities," Hill said. "Auburn already has several autism advocacy groups ready to support and help the Network connect with families in need of services for their children, many of whom are approaching adulthood. I am very excited to begin this important new initiative in our state."

Hill can be contacted at hilldol@auburn.edu or 334-844-2004.