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Inspiring autism ‘aha’ moments

CMU treatment center chips away at shortage of trained professionals

Contact: Heather Smith

​Autism spectrum disorder affects every individual differently.

Brian Davis understands this after three years working with children in the Central Autism Treatment Center at Central Michigan University.

"No two people are the same," Davis said. "If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism."

Davis, of Owosso, Michigan, is a CMU experimental psychology graduate student who will graduate in December. He's a supervisor at the center, which is fulfilling a nearly $500,000 grant with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to expand services in Michigan for children with autism.

CAT provides a program that leads to behavior analyst certification.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley recently said Michigan needs between 1,500 to 2,000 certified service providers. Currently there are 603.

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., affecting approximately one in 68 children.

The CAT center currently serves 17 children, and grant funding trains the professionals who work with them. Undergraduate and graduate CMU students can complete their fieldwork and practical experience by participating in treatment.

The center supplements autism services that schools provide, said Director Christie Nutkins. She said space is limited, and the children receive service over a long period of time, so turnover is not high.

"We really are training the future providers of applied behavioral analysis services in the state of Michigan," Nutkins said. "We want people from Michigan to stay in Michigan instead of moving away."

"Between graduate-level and undergraduate programs, 129 students have gone through the program, and 15 of them are certified," Nutkins said. "Not all of them who go through the program take the exam for certification because some choose to work in other fields such as education or speech-language pathology or communication disorders."

CMU's exam pass rate for students reporting results is 94 percent, which is higher than the national average of approximately 60 percent.

'Hi, Dad'

Davis is among the 15 who are certified.

He came to CMBrian_Davis.jpgU as an undergraduate in 2014 to pursue a degree in physical therapy, but a psychology professor, Carl Johnson, encouraged him visit the then-new Central Autism Treatment Center in 2014.

"I checked it out, and I never left," Davis said. "Working here is extremely rewarding, and because our field is so data-driven, you get to see what your personal impact has had on a child over a month's time."

Davis remembers working with a 5-year-old who didn't have solid communication skills.

"When his dad came to pick him up, he said 'Hi' to his son, who responded with 'Hi, Dad,'" Davis said. "Seeing the parents' reaction to their kids actually acknowledging them, it was groundbreaking for them."

Shannon Hunyadi is a junior psychology major from Troy, Michigan, who has worked at the center for two years. Her memorable moment came earlier this year when she watched the 2-and-a-half-year-old child she's working with do his first sign independently.

What did he sign?

"He signed the word 'open,'" Hunyadi said proudly. "I was really excited."

Funding for future services

Additional services provided through the current grant included collaborating with area schools and offering training for educational professionals.

State of Michigan grant funding will end Sept. 30, but Nutkins is working to secure additional funding.

She said one of the benefits of being a university-based training center is the chance to provide data and publish research that could help other training centers.

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