Maine Department of Education pledges additional funding to support autism resource, research institute

The funding will allow the Orono-based Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research to improve outcomes for the thousands of children in the state with autism spectrum disorder

AUGUSTA – The Maine Department of Education is committing over $150,000 to continue the work of the state’s first autism institute.

Those funds are in addition to the $209,802 the Department and the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development contributed to open the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research (MAIER) at the start of 2014.

Autism is a developmental disability with varying degrees of severity that affects a person’s ability to communicate, to reason and to interact with others. An estimated 1 in 68 children is now being diagnosed with autism. The new funding will further the institute’s initial efforts to build statewide capacity to improve outcomes for young Mainers with autism.

Much of the funding will be used to expand training in evidence-based practices for teams from Maine school districts to help increase the academic and social success for autistic students. About 9 percent – or 2,776 students – of the identified children with disabilities in Maine’s K-12 public schools have been diagnosed with autism. Districts teams will also be provided access to a coach who will help them implement the proven practices learned during the six workshop days.

Already 28 teams have been established and applications are now being accepted to add up to a dozen more. The interest from districts to participate is reassuring to parents, who may be overwhelmed by the child’s autism diagnosis, said Deborah Rooks-Ellis, an assistant professor of Special Education at UMaine and the institute’s full-time director.

“Autism can be highly disruptive and the things that trigger behaviors, like transitions, lots of noise and crowds, are most prevalent in schools,” said Rooks-Ellis. “To see so many districts commit to better serving the needs of children with autism sends an important message to parents that Maine cares and that there are autism experts in their child’s school who can best support them to become highly functioning.”

In its first 16 months, the institute has impacted hundreds of children with autism and their families as well as the professionals who serve them.

The institute has convened the Maine Family Partnership, a family-led initiative working to create a system of supports for families impacted by autism. In addition to online resources, the group has created three guides written by parents of children with autism for parents of children newly diagnosed with autism. The guides will be published this spring and provided to pediatricians and Child Development Services sites around the state. They’ve also held two “My Day to Play” events at the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor, providing youngsters with autism a safe space to explore and enjoy the children’s museum.

In addition to providing resources directly to parents so they can help their children with autism live more productive lives, MAIER has provided training to nearly 400 professionals and 17 additional trainings are scheduled during the current and next school year, thanks to Maine DOE’s funding.

MAIER also has worked with UMaine to establish a three-course Graduate Certification in Autism Spectrum Disorders. That add-on to a master’s degree will help prepare experienced educators and administrators to assume leadership roles in developing and implementing educational programs for students with autism in school settings. So far, three people have earned the certification and a dozen more are currently enrolled. The Maine DOE’s funding will also allow that certificate program to expand.

“Our vision was that parents of kids with autism would say, ‘I’m glad I live in Maine because of the resources available for our family here,’” said Maine DOE Director of Special Services Jan Breton. “In a short time, the institute has made incredible progress in realizing that vision and improving the quality of life for children with autism and their families.”

For more information about the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research, visit www.maineautisminstitute.org or www.facebook.com/maineautisminstitute.