DOE, UMaine launch autism resource, research institute

AUGUSTA – Mainers who serve children with autism and their families will soon have a statewide system of supports.

The Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research (MAIER), a partnership of the Maine Department of Education and the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, will open on Jan. 1 at the UMaine campus. The two organizations have committed to contribute a total of $288,000 to fund the first 18 months of the new collaborative.

Deborah Rooks-Ellis, an assistant professor of Special Education at UMaine, will serve as the institute’s full-time director, overseeing its efforts to build statewide capacity to improve outcomes for children with autism.

MAIER will be the state’s primary resource for leadership, training, professional development and technical assistance for evidence-based and promising practices for professionals working with children with autism and their families, as well as post-secondary students aspiring to serve children, families, schools and community service providers. The institute will also provide Maine’s families with services, support and resources to increase their understanding of autism and their ability to help their children with autism live productive lives.

Planned activities of the institute are extensive and include developing roadmaps to navigate services from birth to adulthood, providing family to family mentoring, hosting a clearinghouse of information including an events calendar, putting on professional development workshops and webinars, and strengthening existing regional collaboratives.

Autism is a developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate, to reason and to interact with others, with varying degrees of severity. It is the third most common developmental disability, occurring in approximately one out of every 88 births according to the Autism Society of Maine.

“This is an incredible step forward in Maine’s ability to ensure children with autism and their loved ones are well-served,” said Maine DOE Director of Special Services Jan Breton.  “For many Maine families, the services this institute will directly provide and support will greatly increase the quality of life they and their children with autism will experience in our state.  From day one, the hope and help we are able to provide through the institute will make a meaningful difference in the lives of so many Maine people.”

Most notable is the coordinated support MAIER will provide to Maine’s K-12 public schools, which currently enroll about 2,600 students with autism, Breton said. Doing so will further Maine DOE’s commitment to ensuring the state’s schools serve all students and that educators and parents have access to research-based educational tools that support the teaching of children with disabilities.

“I am thrilled to be a part of this coordinated effort,” said Professor Rooks-Ellis. “In addition to providing families and children with autism resources, information and tools to contribute to awareness, the Maine Autism Institute for Research and Education will serve as the primary source of education and training for professionals working with children and families and for undergraduate and graduate students aspiring to serve children with autism spectrum disorders, and their families, schools and communities.”

The announcement of MAIER, made last week at the annual conference for the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, came just days after MaineHealth’s Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook revealed it had received a $1.2 million grant to study severe causes of autism.

For more information about the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research, visit www.umaine.edu/edhd/ or contact 207-581-2352

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