SUNY Empire State College launched its new statewide Center for Autism Inclusivity in an effort to be a fully autism-supportive college while meeting the growing demand for professionals working with children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network reported 1 in 54 children is identified with a spectrum disorder by the age of eight years old.
Despite the growing number of students with autism who seek a college degree, there is a scarcity of higher education programs to fully support students with ASD, according to a press release from the college.
Announced on Thursday during a socially-distanced press conference at SUNY Empire’s Saratoga Springs campus, the school’s new Center for Autism Inclusivity, in partnership with Anderson Center for Autism, will work with high schools throughout New York state to identify qualified students with ASD to enroll at SUNY Empire, as the college is expanding its offerings and services to meet the needs of these students.
In addition to providing personalized, one-on-one in-person instruction under the new program, there is currently no other college in the nation that offers additional support for students with autism in fully online programs.
The SUNY Empire Center for Autism Inclusivity will partner with Anderson Center to develop new degree programs, such as a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis, that prepare the workforce to address educational, emotional, and social needs of those with autism.
Working with SUNY Empire’s Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning, the center will award college credits for professional certifications, allowing autism professionals to save time and money toward an associate or bachelor’s degree at SUNY Empire.
Through the partnership with SUNY Empire, Anderson employees can earn up to 13 credits, equivalent to a full semester, with transfer credits for professional certifications.
The center will also educate SUNY Empire faculty and staff on autism and how to meet the needs of students with autism in face-to-face and online environments.
The new training coupled with SUNY Empire’s individualized education model is expected to greatly expand educational opportunities for individuals with ASD, which is a developmental disability characterized by persistent impairments in social interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities.
To promote autism inclusivity more broadly, the center will collaborate with partners across the state to provide parents, teachers, employers, and service providers the most up-to-date information about autism spectrum disorders.
Dr. Noor Syed will serve as director of the Center for Autism Inclusivity. Syed earned her Ph.D., M.Phil, and M.S. degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a B.A. in psychology applied behavior analysis from Binghamton University. She is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst – Doctoral and a Licensed Behavior Analyst/Specialist in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
Syed currently serves as a verified course sequence coordinator for the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Prior to joining SUNY Empire, Syed was a professor of practice and the clinical director of Lehigh University Autism Services and the director of international partnerships for the Global Autism Project. Before joining academia, Syed worked in a variety of professional settings as an applied behavior analyst and special education teacher.
Under Syed’s leadership, the center is anticipated to succeed at educating dedicated professionals in the field of applied behavioral analysis, as its faculty and staff conduct applied research on methods, tools, and practices to support individuals with autism.
“SUNY Empire’s mission calls for dramatically expanding access to higher education and today’s announcement continues that important commitment,” said SUNY Empire State College President Jim Malatras said in the release. “Our faculty will adopt new methods and adjust teaching styles to ensure incoming students with autism spectrum disorders are given every advantage, and feel comfortable and confident in the college environment in order to graduate and achieve future success. The pandemic has heightened awareness and increased conversations about ways in which educators can better serve all students, to find new paths to create equitable opportunities for all students. The Center for Autism Inclusivity at SUNY Empire will do just that.”
Anderson Center for Autism Chief Executive Officer Patrick Paul, an alumnus of SUNY Empire State College, added, “Collaborations such as the one we are embarking on with SUNY Empire State College are going to play an instrumental role in the future of service development and delivery for individuals with autism. “I am excited about the opportunities that this, and future collaborations will provide for individuals and families who have historically been underserved. Anderson Center for Autism is happy to share our focus and expertise in the field of autism with SUNY Empire State College, a leader in the field of academia and personalized, accessible learning.”
New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Theodore A. Kastner believes the Center for Autism Inclusivity at SUNY Empire will fill a gap that currently exists in research, education, and information when it comes to supporting people with autism, he said in the release. “By providing degrees and certificates that will prepare graduates to work in fields that support people with autism and other developmental disabilities, providing an accessible higher education to young people on the autism spectrum and informing the general public through research and information, the center is paving the path to a future that is inclusive, supportive and accepting.”
SUNY Empire State College School for Graduate Studies dean Nathan Gonyea said he is thrilled to launch the Center for Autism Inclusivity, which has been in development for several years. “The creation of the center is a sign of the commitment of SUNY Empire to help serve everyone in our community, including those who have historically faced barriers to receiving the education and services they need and deserve, including access to a high-quality higher education experience. I look forward to the coming months and years as we begin to launch the various programs and initiatives that will be part of the center,” he said in the release.
“Unfortunately, there are not enough credentialed behavior analysts in New York state to reach the vast number of children and families in need and truly optimize the quality of life for an individual with an autism spectrum disorder,” added Tina Covington, chief operating officer of the Anderson Center for Autism. “Anderson Center for Autism is well equipped to address this gap head-on, by developing collaborative models which allow our expertise in the field reach a broader group of service recipients, while also increasing the number of well-educated and well-trained professionals in the field. I am looking forward to seeing this collaboration with SUNY Empire State College come to life and begin impacting people throughout New York state.”
Elected officials including Congressman Joe Morelle, Senator Roy McDonald, and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara expressed their support for the new Center for Autism Inclusivity as well.
“As a society, we have an obligation to never stop fighting to create a more fair and equal society that values the contributions of all people, including those with different and special abilities,” Morelle said in the release. “I applaud SUNY Empire and the Anderson Center for Autism for their work to create a more accessible future for students, caretakers, and families across New York state – ultimately giving them the greatest chance to overcome the challenges they face and utilize the unique and special talents they possess.”
McDonald, who is the grandfather of two children with autism said he is grateful to SUNY Empire for this effort. “More services are needed for the increasing number of young children being diagnosed, and their families. The more knowledge we have and can share, the better off everyone is,” he said in the release. “We need to do more to learn about and understand their needs, and I hope we have the capacity to turn this into a real successful program.”
Santabarbara, chair of the New York State Assembly’s Subcommittee on Autism Spectrum Disorders, congratulated the college too.
“It [is] exciting to know this new partnership will be focused on the growing need for professionals working with children and adults with autism spectrum disorders,” he said in the release, sharing that his teenage son Michael was born with autism. “This collaboration is a great step forward towards advancing academic programs that prepare the workforce to address educational, emotional, and social needs of those living with autism and I’m confident it will help make life-changing advances and lead to better outcomes.”
Representatives from other organizations with missions to help people with autism also shared their support.
“The Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region recognizes the need for further training to increase the availability of certified and licensed professionals to address the needs of the autism community across New York state, and specifically in the Capital Region. SUNY Empire State College’s program will provide much-needed workforce development for professionals who serve our loved ones impacted by autism. Providing post-secondary education opportunities for high school students impacted by autism will enhance their ability to live independent lives of their choosing and transition to adulthood with needed educational and employment skills,” Janine Kruiswijk, executive director of the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region, said in the release.
“One of the greatest challenges adults on the autism spectrum face is finding and maintaining meaningful employment. We are particularly excited to see an initiative like this, which not only gives critical support to students on the spectrum during their college experience, but also trains professionals to prepare autistic adults to navigate the complexities of the workplace,” added said Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger/Autism Network.
Special Olympics New York President and CEO Stacey Hengsterman agreed. “There are so many with people with intellectual disabilities who have not yet found their way into the New York workforce, and the Center for Autism Inclusivity at SUNY Empire is certain to create a new pathway for them,” she said in the release, adding that Special Olympics New York looks forward to being a part of it.
“As a mother of a young man with autism, parent educator, and parent advisor, family empowerment is key,” Paige Piece, executive director of Families Together in New York said in the release. “This is a needed program to help effect positive change for the future of our children.”
Local organizations such as Saratoga Bridges and Wildwood Programs are on board too.
“Saratoga Bridges is excited about this new venture that SUNY Empire State College has created,” said Valerie Muratori, executive director of Saratoga Bridges, in the release. “Our ability to continue providing the highest level of quality services for individuals who are on the autism disorder spectrum, is predicated on having professionals who have obtained the academic courses to better understand and apply the necessary supports that enhance, empower and enrich the lives of people with autism and their families. The aspect of the Center for Autism Inclusivity we are most excited to hear about is there willingness to expand opportunities to students with autism who need the additional assistance in becoming successful college students. We are truly looking forward to working collaboratively with the center as they begin their journey. This could not be a more encouraging and positive way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act!”
Mary Ann Allen, executive director of Wildwood Programs added, “There is a growing demand for resources in our field and the center will be a true asset to all organizations supporting people with autism. We look forward to future collaborations, connections and networking with the center. in our field and the center will be a true asset to all organizations supporting people with autism. We look forward to future collaborations, connections and networking with the center.”
More information about the Center for Autism Inclusivity and its upcoming programs and sessions can be found online at www.esc.edu/graduate-studies/autism-research-education-services-center/.