Autism course celebrates 30 years

An innovative Yale course on the study and treatment of autism is now entering its fourth decade.

Autism and Related Disorders, founded in 1984 by chair of the Yale Child Studies Center Fred Volkmar, features lectures by experts in the field and weekly clinical experience with autistic children in the community. The course is part of the Yale Child Study Center’s Autism Program, which encompasses lab-based research, clinical services for autistic children, and the popular undergraduate course. Volkmar said the program is likely the oldest of its type in the country and has been as leader in raising awareness about the disorder over the last three decades.

“There [are] a lot of people in the Yale community who are affected in some way by autism, and [Autism and Related Disorders] is very empowering for them to be able to learn and work in depth with the subject,” said James McPartland, a professor in the Child Studies Center and co-leader of Autism and Related Disorders.

According to Volkmar, the program first started by accident. Thirty years ago, a group of Yale students wanted to volunteer at Benhaven, an organization that provides various services for families with autistic children. The students asked Volkmar to provide an academic structure that could incorporate the hands-on approach of understanding autism with classroom learning.

Soon after, the initiative became the Autism and Related Disorders seminar, which Volkmar teaches in the fall. Once a week, Volkmar welcomes autism experts to class, ranging from scientists studying how MRI scans can lead to better diagnoses to New York Times reporters who discuss the process of writing about autism.

But for many undergraduates, including current student Manuel Valle ’15, the most meaningful part of the course is interacting with local autistic children.

Each week, students complete clinical observations, some working at local autism organizations like Benhaven and Chapel Haven. Others take on different initiatives, Christopher Rim ’17, for example, created an education program for parents and teachers to help autistic victims of bullying.

Earlier this year, a local Boy Scout troop reached out to Volkmar to help the group identify ways of better incorporating autistic kids into their ranks. Next month, Volkmar and a student in his class will introduce the anti-bullying educational program to the scoutmasters and parents. Volkmar also consults to the Yale Admissions Office, which often asks him for his help in reviewing applicants who self-identify as autistic in an attempt to be more inclusive to applicants with the disorder.

Volkmar said his students are often deeply affected by the class. Many of them have family members who fall on the autism spectrum, and Volkmar guarantees a spot in the class for anyone with an autistic sibling. He takes about 15 students per semester.

Valle said he was initially drawn to the class because it was one of the few in the psychology department that offers hands-on clinical experience, which has made a huge difference in his understanding of autism.

“It’s been amazing just being there for the kids and seeing their different abilities and their specific disabilities,” Valle said. “It’s been totally eye opening.”

The course constantly changes in response to developments in the field, Volkmar said. In response to growing demand for online courses, Volkmar began offering the course on iTunes in 2010, and is planning to update the online version this year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

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