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A Note From
the LADDER Family Center

Scott Robertson

Katie Mulligan works with a student
at La Salle's summer inclusion program.

Christina DiPaolo, '08, and Katie Mulligan have both worked with children with special needs, including those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), in their classrooms. Completing La Salle's certificate program in autism has given them new insight into the complexity of autism and the rewards of finding creative ways to help children and their families.

"The program wasn't just focused on the child in your classroom and how to form a lesson plan around that student, but understanding the spectrum as a whole and how to approach it from all different angles while working with teachers and staff and parents," said DiPaolo, a sixth-grade learning support teacher at Faust Elementary School in Bensalem, Pa., who completed her certificate last spring and is now continuing in La Salle's master's program in education.

DiPaolo and Mulligan are two of the first eight students to complete the certificate in autism, but many more are to come in the future as La Salle expands its educational and support service offerings to the teachers and families of children with autism. These efforts are coordinated through the La Salle Autism and Developmental Disabilities Education Resources (LADDER) Family Center, an initiative that has taken a multidisciplinary approach to the challenges of autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities.

A $100,000 grant from the Widener Foundation and a new agreement with the Philadelphia School District have given the LADDER Center a boost.

The grant will allow the LADDER Center to provide medical, physical, and emotional care and support services to children and their families at Widener Memorial School, a school for children with special needs in Philadelphia. The services offered to children and families with the help of the grant will include assistance after a diagnosis, guidance on choosing health-care providers and specialists, coordination of services provided through multiple agencies, and direct support to individual families.

"We are very grateful for the Widener Foundation grant," said Thomas Keagy, Ph.D., Dean of La Salle's School of Arts and Sciences. "It allows us to develop space on the West Campus for this important program. The first phase of our outreach efforts began this fall with La Salle providing services at the Widener School for 10 families. In January, we expect to expand these services to other families, utilizing the new facilities at La Salle. Our vision is to grow into a regional center for children with special needs and their families."

Robert Mack, former principal of Widener, will be the LADDER Center's Associate Director.

"What's also great about the Widener Foundation grant is that it will be used for resources and technology for children, so it's going to have a direct impact on them, too," added Margaret McManus, Ph.D., Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

An essential part of the support equation for families of children with special needs is teachers who are prepared to meet the educational needs of all the students in their classrooms. Recognizing that autism was becoming more prevalent in schools and that teachers with knowledge of how to work with children on the autism spectrum would be in high demand, La Salle initiated a certificate in autism within its master's degree program in education.

According to Carole Patrylo, Ed.D., the Associate Director of Autism in La Salle's Education Department who wrote the proposal for the 12-credit autism certificate and teaches two of the courses in the program, one of the hallmarks of the LADDER Center is the integration of disciplines – education, social work, psychology, speechlanguage- hearing science, and religion, among others – to take a holistic approach that benefits students, their families, and the professionals who provide support.

When the Philadelphia School District earlier this year issued a call to colleges and universities in the region to propose graduate programs in high-need subject areas specifically for the district's teachers, La Salle made a convincing case that its programs would be the best fit for teachers focusing on special education and autism, and the University was selected as one of the district's partners. Starting this fall, any Philadelphia teacher in an underachieving "empowerment" school who qualifies and wishes to earn an autism certificate and a master's degree with a concentration in special education will be able to take La Salle courses with La Salle professors at Northeast High School and be reimbursed for tuition costs by the school district. Seventeen teachers are enrolled this fall.

"We viewed special education and autism education as an area of identified need in the city schools and an area in which we had a particular strength," said Harris Lewin, Ed.D., Director of Graduate Programs in Education. "Given the increase in the number of children on the autism spectrum, teachers need more tools and information to meet the needs of these children."

Patrylo, who also directs the summer practicum in special education for graduate students, is a witness to the impact that knowledgeable, enthusiastic, well-trained teachers have on students, particularly those with special needs. The practicum takes the form of a fully inclusive summer program for children with special needs and their siblings at Limekiln Learning Center in Ambler, Pa.

"It's very family-oriented," Patrylo said. "From the parents' perspective, they can enroll all of their children in one camp, and they can all talk about La Salle's camp at the dinner table."

During the month-long program, graduate students work with the students' individual education plans (IEPs) from their school districts and communicate with parents every day to ensure that the children are making progress toward their educational goals.

Mulligan, who wrapped up her master's degree with the practicum experience over the summer, said what she has learned in the summer program and in her classes she has been able to apply immediately in her preschool classroom at Special People in Northeast in Philadelphia.

"My approach and perspective is that every child with autism is different, but there are strategies and interventions, such as using visual aids and establishing specific routines, that work better for children with autism that I made sure I changed immediately in my classroom," Mulligan said.

Next spring, for the third year, La Salle will co-host a conference with Green Tree Partnerships that showcases the goals of the LADDER Center. The theme of the 2011 conference will be "The Voices of Advocacy."

"There are many conferences and events on autism, and some are more academically focused, but we try to combine that academic side of things with the real world," said Frank Mosca, Ph.D., Chair of the Education Department. "We want this conference to be the bridge between the family and the field."