Students Get Hands-on with the Autism Puzzle

Monday, January 28, 2008

We've all seen the magnetic ribbons on the rear bumpers of cars — a brightly-colored jigsaw puzzle, the word "autism" in bold letters. Although the disorder has been recognized since the 1940s, its causes and treatments remain a mystery, and it is just recently that it began getting widespread attention.

This semester, students in Professor of Health Services Michelle Rowe, Ph.D.'s service learning course Autism Spectrum Disorders will begin connecting the pieces of the mysterious disorder and learning first-hand how it affects those touched by it.

The course, which was first offered last year, runs the gamut, according to Rowe. "Students will be given a background on the causes, frequency and diagnosis of autism, and how it's handled in schools, at home and in society," she says.

An integral part of the course is the two to three hours per week students spend observing and interacting with children with autism.

"The students who sign up for the course self-select it. Most are health services, education, psychology or sociology majors with an interest in how autism relates to their discipline," she explains. "However, it's the service element that either inspires a dedication to working with those affected by autism or forces them to recognize that it's not for them."

Along with encouraging tomorrow's champions for the autistic, the course aims to make a larger point about issues of justice by pointing out the social disparities as well. Students will visit one of five off-campus sites, Easter Seals Early Intervention Program, Samuel L. Gompers Elementary School, KenCrest Child Development Center (Suburban and Philadelphia campuses) and Melmark, where they will observe in the classroom and assist teachers.

"The hope is that students not only learn what autism is, but what it looks like in the real world," says Rowe. "The differences between the haves and have-nots in the school system is not limited to clothes they wear."

Rowe will use a variety of texts to provide students with as much information as possible about the baffling nature of autism and the history of its treatments, many of which remain controversial in the medical community. The class will also read Catherine Maurice's Let Me Hear Your Voice, the true story of a family's battle to help two children, diagnosed in the 1970s, recover from autism.

--Kelly Welsh '05 (M.A.)



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