North Texans can count on UNTs legacy of autism research, services


Remarkable. Tremendous. Extraordinary.

All words Wise County pediatrician Dr. Leslie Hollis uses to describe the improvements her son, Christopher, has made over the last year.

Christopher, 7, has been receiving comprehensive educational services and multidisciplinary autism interventions at UNT's Kristin Farmer Autism Center since it opened in September 2012. Before the center opened, Christopher received language services at UNT's Speech and Hearing Center.

"The progress we have made is just amazing," Hollis says. "Before we had the Kristin Farmer Autism Center, we were combining special education services through a developmental preschool with private therapies we had to sort of cobble together in the community.

"Today, I have a son who is excited to go to the center in the morning, who communicates at home, who is making increasing levels of eye contact, who is 100 percent more comfortable in group situations and who loves learning."

Hollis says the Autism Center's comprehensive and fully individualized approach to autism intervention and treatment fills a critical need.

"We have seen tremendous strides in just one year," she says. "I think that's a sign that the center and UNT are truly making a difference with their approach."

According to the National Autism Association, one in every 50 American children and more than 1.2 million U.S. adults live with autism spectrum disorder. While there is currently no cure, experts at the University of North Texas have been revolutionizing autism intervention, expanding research and preparing students to work with individuals on the autism spectrum for nearly 40 years.

UNT's College of Education, College of Public Affairs and Community Service and College of Arts and Sciences all offer programs designed to prepare students for careers that address the needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Many UNT students are also gaining valuable hands-on experience through the university's research and community service efforts.

At the Kristin Farmer Autism Center, students studying special education, applied behavior analysis, speech and hearing sciences and other related fields have the opportunity to take classes, interact with children and work with UNT faculty on groundbreaking research projects. In addition to partnering with the Department of Physical Therapy at the UNT Health Science Center and Texas Woman's University to provide services, the center is collaborating with UNT's Office of Disability Accommodation to mentor college students with autism.

"We still don't know enough about the causes of autism and the effectiveness of most treatments and interventions to claim expertise," says center executive director Kevin Callahan. "However, when you bring a diverse team of highly experienced individuals with varying perspectives together, like we do at the Kristin Farmer Autism Center and across campus, I think you can begin to make well-informed programming decisions that change lives."

UNT's Department of Behavior Analysis is one of the center's most active partners.

Widely regarded as one of the most effective interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, applied behavior analysis uses scientific and educational principles to effect consistent improvement in the social behaviors and skills of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. UNT's department earned the 2012 Enduring Programmatic Contributions Award from the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis for its foundational influences on the field. The department's list of trailblazing accomplishments includes being the nation's first stand-alone department of behavior analysis; developing the nation's first graduate program to be accredited by the Association for Behavior Analysis International; and creating the first undergraduate degree in applied behavior analysis and the first online program for professionals seeking certification by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. UNT's Department of Behavior Analysis was also instrumental in founding the Texas Association for Behavior Analysis, and houses the organization's headquarters.

UNT's academic programs, research and innovative practices are addressing the needs of people on the autism spectrum across the life span. The acclaimed Department of Rehabilitation, Social Work and Addictions, is focused on research and program development designed to help adolescents with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities develop the life skills needed to find and maintain employment.

In October, UNT's widely acclaimed Student Money Management Center, which offers personal financial planning assistance and money management education to UNT students, and the Kristin Farmer Autism Center will debut a series of first-of-their-kind videos to train educators about how to teach budgeting and financial literacy principles to young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

Funded by a grant from the Association of Financial Counseling and Planning Education, the videos and additional training materials will be available free on both centers' websites.

"Understanding the principles of financial literacy and budgeting are a universally important step toward independence for all of us," says Rachel Grimes, program coordinator for the Student Money Management Center. "I think this project brings to light the fact that when we are designing educational materials of any kind, special consideration needs to be taken to ensure information is presented in such a way that it can be understood by individuals on the autism spectrum."

-Jaime Blanton, UNT Advancement