by Kristina Woods Butler
One Piece at a Time
Texas Tech continues to solve the autism puzzle by providing state-of-the art facilities for community resources, education and research.
Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education
The Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education is part of the College of Education and is the premier center in Lubbock for research, education and assistance for families affected by autism.
Research at the center covers three major aspects: developing strategies for the preparation of teachers to meet the needs of students, examining ways to develop parent support networks and preparing individuals with autism as they transition from school to adult services.
About the Center
Top photo (l-r) Janice Magness, Spencer Ragland, David Richman and Sam Shreffler.
Before 21-year-old Sam Shreffler took the stage at the “So You Think You Can Dance” season nine auditions he was a ball of nerves.
“I was like ‘put me out of my misery,’” he said. “But once I got on stage, it almost felt like second nature to me.”
But Shreffler faced more than just nerves. He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was 3 years old. Nearly five times more common in boys than among girls, ASD results in social and communication deficits along with repetitive thoughts or behaviors that range from mild to severe and affect each person in different ways. Based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV, there are three types of ASDs: Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, or atypical autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every 88 children in the U.S. has been identified with ASD, which can appear among all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
Shreffler suffers from social and communication difficulty and said he sometimes feels like a social wallflower. The celebrity judges on “So You Think You Can Dance” agreed that Shreffler exhibited courage by performing his unique, lyrical freestyle dance in front of the audience–courage Shreffler attributes to his involvement with the Burkhart Transition Academy at Texas Tech. (Watch Shreffler's audition on YouTube.)
A Bridge to Independent Living
“Being a part of the Burkhart Transition Academy has given me a lot of confidence to be more myself and stand out more in front of crowds, and to be able to voice my opinion a lot more clearly,” Shreffler said. “In the past, I would be quite a wallflower, just minding my own business. I never, in my lifetime, would have thought I would be a part of that show.”
The Transition Academy, which is part of the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research, aids in the bridging of young adults with ASD into postsecondary higher education, vocational, or other settings through strength-based assessment and individualized interventions to build on their strengths. Students in the academy meet four days per week to learn life, job and social skills.
“Our goal is for the students to become self-sufficient members of society and for them to have a life of their own that is not necessarily dependent on their parents,” said Janice Magness, Burkhart Transition Academy director. “We teach students to cook, how to take care of their clothing, about grooming, about interviewing for jobs and how to act in social situations.”
The students, with the help of a job coach, also participate in 90-day internships at various locations across the Texas Tech campus and at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. The internship opportunities vary from clerical duties and computer work, to food services and recycling. Students are required to participate in at least two internships while at the academy, which provides opportunities to explore a variety of jobs to better prepare them for the workforce.
“Our students learn that autism is not a life sentence. It’s not a disease or something they can use as a crutch,” said Magness. “I tell them every day, ‘Look at you. You’re able bodied, you have a great mind, you happen to have autism, so what? A lot of people have things much worse than you. You are capable of making friends, having relationships and possibly getting married!’”
Click images to enlarge.
The Burkhart Center
David Richman is director of the Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education in the College of Education.
Janice Magness is the director of the Burkhart Transition Academy, a part of the Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education in the College of Education.
DeAnn Lechtenberger is director of technical assistance and community outreach for the Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education in the College of Education.
Wesley Dotson is director of outpatient services for the Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education in the College of Education.
The Transition Academy is only one portion of the Burkhart Center, founded in 2005 through an endowment from Jim and Jere Lynn Burkhart. While raising their grandson with autism, the Burkharts were disappointed in the lack of knowledge in the community about ASD and its symptoms, as well as the lack of help for families affected by ASD. The center was created to remedy these problems by providing services to the community, offering training in autism education for regular and special education teachers, and providing opportunities to conduct applied research to increase the quality of life of those affected by ASD.
“Education is still our primary mission,” said Burkhart Center Director David Richman. “We are very focused on being an information clearing house. We try to get information out about evidence-based practices to both educators and the community.”
In November, the center received $174,854 for the first year of a five-year grant from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD), titled TechWorks for Texas (Principal Investigator, DeAnn Lechtenberger; Co-PIs, David Richman and Wesley Dotson). The statewide initiative will help establish Project SEARCH sites across Texas that provide one-year, school-to-work internships for students with developmental disabilities that lead to integrated and competitive employment in the community.
“Students who participate in the Project SEARCH training and business internships will become qualified for positions in hospitals, banks, city services or any number of positions within their community to be competitively employed when they complete the Project SEARCH program,” said Lechtenberger, director of technical assistance and community outreach with the Burkhart Center. “Our hope is that this will not only provide employment for these students but will enhance their quality of life in their community.”
Lechtenberger, Richman, and Dotson are also directing a $1.1 million grant from the TCDD called Project CASE (Connections for Academic Success and Employment), which supports students with developmental disabilities, including autism, who are interested in earning a postsecondary education certificate or academic degree. The Burkhart Center works with TTU, South Plains College, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitation Services, and local business partners to offer a wider array of coordinated supports and services than typically provided in higher education for students with disabilities. The project currently has 14 students enrolled–seven at South Plains College and seven at Texas Tech.
The center also provides a variety of resources and support for families affected by ASD in the community, ranging from summer camps and pool parties for children with ASD, to an outpatient clinic.
Recently, the center was awarded funding from The CH Foundation that created an online forum and call center, and another service reserved for families with more complex needs that require an in-depth assessment before appropriate referral to community resources can be made. The grant also will support a study to identify common sources of parenting and family stress across different age ranges for individuals with autism, the range of services families have access to in the community, and the barriers they experience while attempting to access services for their family.
Another important mission for the center is conducting high-quality research, which Richman said consists of translational research, or collaborative research spanning several research areas that transitions easily from the lab or hospital to the home or clinic settings.
One ongoing project is looking at the ability of very young children with autism to recognize emotions from facial expressions only, which Richman explains is a very difficult task for people with autism because they tend to look at areas other than the eyes and the mouth to get most information for how someone is feeling. The eyes and mouth are the cues those without ASD look for in determining emotions. Because children with ASD have difficulty accurately interpreting facial expressions, it makes communications more difficult for them. If the researchers can uncover why children with ASD do not look for those traditional cues, then perhaps they can determine what behavioral training is needed.
The center also is collaborating with researchers Michael O’Boyle in the College of Human Sciences and Mary Baker in the College of Engineering to do a series of neuroimaging studies with the Texas Tech Neuroimaging Institute on understanding basic brain mechanisms that may underlie characteristics seen in autism. Better awareness of the brain functions of those with ASD could lead to greater specificity in selecting behavioral treatments.
Richman believes that working in groups across several disciplines helps to take research a step further and answer some larger questions.
“We could develop some interesting questions that we could probably answer ourselves, but if you really want to start to answer those bigger questions, nobody can do it by themselves,” said Richman. “That’s what really gets me excited about Texas Tech is that there are many people who are willing to come to the table and not just give lip service to collaboration, but really roll up their sleeves and work hard. I truly believe that these complex collaborations will eventually pay off with some findings that we would have never discovered by ourselves.”
“It’s not about making it to the end of the ride, it’s how you enjoy the ride while you’re on it.” — Sam Schreffler
Artist rendering of the new Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education Building. Watch the groundbreaking ceremony.
Building the Future
Next year, the center will move to a new state-of-the-art facility located directly adjacent to and east of the College of Education Building. The two-story facility will house 28,458 square feet of clinical, educational, and research space. The first floor will consist of clinical research areas, including a mock apartment and fully functioning café, to teach daily living and vocational skills for Transition Academy students. The building also will have space for outpatient services and a laboratory preschool to study teaching and socialization strategies for young children with and without autism. The second floor will consist of investigator offices and suites for researchers conducting externally funded research projects.
“We’re trying to figure out the needs of Lubbock and the community and provide that to them, but we are a research university,” said Richman. “We are here to learn more about what’s the best way to do that. So we’re not just going to be a clearing house of information, and we’re not just going to provide clinical services. We are going to provide those clinical services and provide that information clearing house while directly studying what’s the best way to reach families and individuals with autism and help them.”
Magness said words can’t describe her excitement about the new space allotted for the Transition Academy.
“We are just thrilled to have this building,” she said. “Thanks go out to many people in this community and at Texas Tech University, but through the effort and dedication of Jim and Jere Lynn Burkhart, their dream of a state-of-the-art autism center is going to become a reality. Hopefully, the center will grow and make a real difference in the lives of people with ASD. Our goal for the Transition Academy is to help transition young adults from high school into adulthood, and to provide them with the skills they will need to be productive members of society.”
As for Shreffler, his goal is to spend his third and final year at the academy determining what his ultimate career will be after he leaves.
“I’ve got a lot of tools, and hopefully, by the end of the year I’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to be doing and what steps I need to take to make it to it,” Shreffler said. “This goes to an old saying that it’s not about making it to the end of the ride, it’s how you enjoy the ride while you’re on it. That’s what I’m trying to do at this point in time. I’m trying to enjoy it as best I can and also learn as much as I can along the way until that time comes when I have to step out and do my own thing.”
About the College of Education
The College of Education offers a full range of programs, including eight doctoral degrees, 12 master's degrees and two bachelor's degrees with numerous specializations leading to careers in public or private education as teachers, professors, administrators, counselors and diagnosticians.
Programs in the college are housed in two departments. The Department of Curriculum and Instruction offers undergraduate programs leading to initial teaching certificates and graduate programs in bilingual education, curriculum and instruction, elementary education, language literacy and secondary education.
The Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership offers graduate programs in counselor education, educational leadership, educational psychology, higher education, instructional technology and special education.
Kristina Woods Butler is Associate Director of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Photos courtesy Neal Hinkle.