CSUF to open center for autism research

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As a way to celebrate Autism Awareness Month, Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Autism will open at the end of April to assist families with autistic children and train students who are interested in conducting research in autism.

Jason Baker, Ph.D., co-director of the center and CSUF assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Studies, said the center came about after he and two other co-directors, Erica Howell, Ph.D., and

Erica Howell, Ph.D., Rachel Fenning, Ph.D., and Jason Baker, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Autism (Brandon Mitchell / For the Daily Titan)
Erica Howell, Ph.D., Rachel Fenning, Ph.D., and Jason Baker, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Autism (Brandon Mitchell / For the Daily Titan)

Rachel Fenning, Ph.D., worked together to find people on campus who were interested in autism.

The center is interested in research on developmental issues in young children, evaluations, coordinating services for families and early screening and identification in children with autism, according to Baker.

“(It’s) about making Cal State Fullerton an autism friendly campus and helping the students here who have autism, of which we have many,” said Baker.

The co-directors brought their own concepts and knowledge to the Center for Autism and broke it down into two main cores: Applied Developmental Core and the Education Core.

According to Howell, the two cores train students and perform studies by receiving funds from individual grants and therefore operate independently.

Baker works in the Applied Developmental Core which focus on social and emotional development of children with autism.

The Applied Developmental Core is using psychophysiological equipment to perform tests.

This equipment includes sensors that measure electrodermal activity, which are placed on children involved in the research.

Baker said the Applied Developmental Core’s largest project is on identifying what might set children with autism off and find out how the children respond to different kinds of stresses.

The tests will also determine how autistic children regulate their stress and what parents are do to help their children, he said.

The Applied Developmental Core’s next research project will focus on social cognition, specifically how children with autism think about social exchanges.

Future plans include completing certain clinical activities through CSUF, Baker said.

A portion of the autism center will be devoted to assisting families with autistic children.

“When you have a child with autism, it impacts every area of their life,” Baker said.

Parents and children become involved with the center’s research through community postings and early intervention agencies, added Baker.

“In addition to the research and the community outreach, we do direct clinical service to families,” Baker said.

The Applied Developmental Core has case management services for families in need of assistance with their children.

Baker is working with a team of about 10 undergraduate CSUF students who are either interns or research assistants, and he works with a graduate assistant from social work.

The social work intern, who is supervised by the social work faculty, helps families in navigating sources, such as where to go and how to receive funding, Baker said.

 The social work intern, who is supervised by the social work faculty, helps families in navigating sources, such as where to go and how to receive funding, Baker said.

He trains the students in research, and how to understand autism and help families.

“We’re overwhelmed by how many students are interested in autism,” Baker said. “We’ve actually had to turn people away because we have too many students for what we’re doing right now.”

Baker said he hopes they can accept more students as the center grows.

Mariann Howland, 22, is a senior majoring in psychology at CSUF and a student research associate and lab coordinator for the Applied Developmental Core. Howland said she collects data from families for the Core’s current research on the autism emotion study.

She is active in the community outreach for the Center for Autism by attending autism-related events to spread the word about the center and its studies.

Howland said the intricacies of each family is important to the core’s research and is excited to use the information they gather to help families.

“It’s just such a great experience to be able to communicate and contact with (the families) one-on-one and hoping that we’re helping them to access resources,” she said.

The Center for Autism’s second core is working on an investigation about the outcomes of the Autism Spectrum Disorders-added Authorization program, said Howell, a co-director for the Education Core and CSUF assistant professor of special education.

Howell said teachers who have certain types of credentials have to return to school to receive further certification to teach students with autism. The research looks into the outcomes of the certifications.

The Education Core recently finished two studies that were related to individuals with autism.

One study examined the adult outcomes for individuals with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome, while the other looked at the involvement of individuals with autism in a faith-based setting and their involvement in a community, according to Howell.

Howell performs training for teachers and students who are interested in autism.

“(It’s) exciting and it’s fun to have students involved with the process of analyzing the data and helping,” she said.

Howell added that student associates complete assignments related to the development of the center, work on the Peer Assisted College Support (PACS) program and maintain the social media aspect of the center.

“The (students) we’re most interested in are those who are interested in becoming teachers,” she said. “That’s our number one priority.”

Howell also works closely on campus with Autism Speaks U, a CSUF student-based chapter.

“Autism Speaks U provides awareness and advocacy as well as raising funds for Autism Speaks,” said Ray Sadri, co-president of CSUF Autism Speaks U.

Sadri, 24, a senior majoring in communicative disorders, said Autism Speak U is going to work with the new autism center to raise awareness for students impacted by autism.

“The center for autism at CSUF has resources for the students on our campus living with the diagnosis of autism, such as the PACS program,” he said.

Several members from Autism Speaks U are student associates working for the Education Core, according to Sadri.

Although the autism center is officially launching at the end of April, it will have a main opening event in early May for a campus introduction and to review all of the events that occurred during Autism Awareness Month, Baker said.

“We want to be a home for the families, Orange County and beyond … this is a place you can come,” he said.

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