Penn State Intercom......August 9, 2001

Autism program
expands through
distance education

A program for special education teachers is expanding to provide continuing graduate education to states across the country.

Since 1998, University faculty have delivered courses in the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program to more than 400 special education teachers, counselors, speech language pathologists and other professionals from Pennsylvania and the neighboring region.

Through the use of distance education, the ABA program hopes to reach many hundreds more.

The ABA program also serves as the foundation for the University's new Autism Specialist Program, a master's degree of the College of Education's Department of Special Education and the College of Health and Human Development's Department of Communication Disorders. The two-year program includes the ABA course sequence, specialized seminars and a family practicum that emphasizes the role of parents of autistic children.

The newly launched autism program recently received $1.5 million in funding from the U.S. Office of Education. According to John T. Neisworth, professor of special education, the importance and status of the ABA program helped the review panel see the autism master's degree program as worthwhile.

"Applied Behavior Analysis is built on a solid body of scientific facts we know about human behavior. Effective evidenced-based strategies based on behavior principles are helping professionals and parents make great progress with children with behavioral disorders," explained Neisworth, who serves as the ABA program's academic coordinator.

Applied Behavior Analysis involves the design, implementation and evaluation of environmental modifications to produce socially significant improvements in people's behaviors.

The one-year ABA course sequence teaches basic theory and techniques important to the treatment of autism and other severe behavioral disorders. It also prepares professionals for the national certification examination sponsored by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), a nonprofit corporation established to meet credentialing needs in the field.

"Nationally, there is a great need for qualified behavior analysts in a number of different areas, especially right now in autism. Because there is such need, many people have offered services and therapies without having the proper experience or expertise," said Gerald L. Shook, executive director of the BACB.

The series of ABA courses is one of 17 graduate course sequences in the United States that have been approved by the BACB as meeting the coursework standard for taking the Board Certified Behavior Analyst Examination. Along with Neisworth, a number of University faculty teach the ABA graduate courses: Kathryn D.R. Drager, assistant professor of communication disorders; Charles A. Hughes, professor of special education; Richard M. Kubina Jr., assistant professor of education; David L. Lee, assistant professor of special education at Penn State Great Valley; Jose Martinez-Diaz, instructor of education and president of the BACB; James K. McAfee, associate professor of special education; Kathy L. Ruhl, professor of special education; and Pamela S. Wolfe, associate professor of special education.

The University program was designed by faculty in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. In 1999, faculty responded to requests from agencies in Connecticut and New York to offer cohorts in those states. The 2001 version of the course sequence allows professionals throughout the United States to benefit from the University's expertise in the field of applied behavior analysis.

According to Shook, "Pennsylvania's program is an example of what is needed nationally. Not all states have taken Pennsylvania's lead to develop statewide programs, so there is certainly a national need for these graduate courses. I think the Penn State program will be able to fill a need for training far beyond the borders of Pennsylvania."

The University's nationwide program is administered by the Continuing Education Office of Statewide programs. In it, students enroll as part of a group in their local area and complete most of their coursework at a distance. Participants receive lessons on videotape to make the program convenient and accessible, while they work in groups to maintain the educational and networking benefits of learning alongside colleagues. Students may discuss and interact with faculty and classmates through a Web-based bulletin board, e-mail and Internet chat rooms.

The fourth course in the program is offered during the National Autism Conference and Pennsylvania Autism Institute held in the summer on the University Park campus. This year's conference and institute will be held from Aug. 6-10.

For information about the program, visit the Web site at

For information on the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, visit