Kinney SCHOLARS Make a Difference as Autism Professionals
SJU students and alumni help those with ASD live greater
In its fifth year, the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support has celebrated many successes. With autism considered an urgent public health crisis, Saint Joseph’s University has countered the spike in diagnoses with a unique psycho-social model and an optimistic set of numbers, currently:
“We’ve come a long way since the University’s first Autism Awareness Day in 2004,” said Kinney Center Academic Executive Director and Professor of Health Services M. Michelle Rowe, Ph.D. “From our early discussions about what the Kinney Center could become – our vision was a holistic family system – we’ve delivered on a plan that combines therapeutic services with the training for our students who can eventually have an even bigger impact.”
Kinney Center Executive Director Ryan Hammond MBA ’13 explained that the growth has been organic, without extensive marketing or advertising. “We meet our families where they need us,” she said. “While we focus on providing specific solutions inspired by our mission, much of our expansion has been through responding to families saying ‘I wish this could happen.’ Many of our successes have been made possible through the generosity of our alumni and many friends in the community.”
Trusting the Process and Remembering the Big Picture
Kinney SCHOLARS (Students Committed to Helping Others Learn about Autism Research and Support) are Saint Joseph’s University undergraduates who are interested in more than a work-study job. Many are pursuing majors in autism behavioral studies, psychology, elementary education or special education. SCHOLARS provide one-on-one support to participants in the Kinney Center’s youth, adult and transitional programs. After extensive training, and with continuing guidance from the full-time staff, SCHOLARS work directly with individuals with autism.
“A particular type of student typically gravitates to these professions and this place,” Rowe said. “Kinney SCHOLARS often want to make a difference and want a thinking career in which they can know the field and what works. But also, more importantly, they need to feel it…it’s almost as though they need to wrap the autism blanket around themselves before moving forward.”
According to Rowe, those who do well in this field are typically good problem solvers and leaders with strong interpersonal skills and the ability to inspire others. They are kind and caring and want others to succeed.
“But they also have to learn how to empathize with the pain of families in crisis and deal with the difficult behaviors that they can’t blame on the kids,” she said. “This requires a special kind of patience because it’s not all flowers and sunshine. They need to keep their minds on the big picture, put the tough days aside, and know they are powerful in making a difference because most children do well over time.”
Teaching as They Learn
Patrick Snyder ’12 began as a SCHOLAR at the first Camp Kinney. “That experience changed my life,” he said. “It didn’t feel like work but like a family. This was a place where I could be comfortable in my own skin as part of a community of people with similar interests.” (Snyder also met his wife at Saint Joseph’s, so the couple’s connection to the University remains doubly strong.)
After graduation, Snyder held positions as Recreational Coordinator and Assistant Director of Programs at the Kinney Center as he studied for his master’s at Temple University. For the past year, he has worked as a high school special education teacher in the Autism Support Program in the Lower Merion School District. “I collaborate with other adults to create an individualized program for each student,” he said. “My Kinney Center experience and education have helped as I’ve created a curriculum for a new program that meets state standards.”
Mariah Keenan ’13, M.S. ’14, who has served as a Kinney Center SCHOLAR and graduate assistant during the past four years, received her Post Master’s Certification in Behavior Analysis this month. In August, she will take the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) exam for a highly marketable credential that will enable her to work anywhere in the United States.
As an intern at the Melmark School in Easttown, Pa., Keenan managed and implemented behavior plans for 7-13- and 17-21-year-olds. At the Kinney Center, she worked alongside the school district and case managers to develop highly individualized programs for young adults with autism.
Keenan helps equip participants with practical life, social and vocational skills needed to succeed after graduation. “I never knew exactly where my heart was, but am finding myself gravitating toward these age groups,” she said. “While the emphasis on early intervention is critical, it’s also important to support families. We’re preparing these students to be the best they can be.”