(VIDEO) The center is one of eight programs chosen from across the U.S. for the honor by leaders of the Council for Exceptional Children, one of the largest special education organizations in the world.
Texas Tech University is home to the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research, a multidisciplinary lifespan autism center housed within the College of Education that offers support and services for families, provides education and training for educators and other professionals, and conducts collaborative, cutting-edge research on the best treatments and training methodologies for autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
With numerous clinical and outreach services and multiple research laboratories and projects, the primary goal of the Burkhart Center is to improve the lives of people with ASD and their families.
"We do that by providing services to families, but also by helping our families, our clients and the professionals we train see what's possible for individuals with autism across the lifespan," said Wes Dotson, director of the center. "We work with clients from diagnosis all the way through adulthood from earliest identification to preparing for school, setting up a comfortable and safe home environment and preparing for post-secondary opportunities and beyond."
The center has become nationally known for its work, with faculty and staff sharing and presenting research and methods with other educators, researchers and professionals across the country – and receiving numerous accolades along the way. The most recent came last month, when the Burkhart Center was recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) as a 2019 Thought Leader in Special Education. The center is one of eight programs nominated and chosen for this honor from across the U.S. by leaders of the CEC, one of the largest special education organizations in the world.
"We have a unique combination of programs serving the lifespan, but even more importantly, given CEC's focus on special education and the schools, we are innovative in our approach to teacher training and preparing and supporting educators," Dotson said. "What excited the CEC leaders most was our dedication to improving teacher preparation and training in ways that targeted underserved and underrepresented communities such as rural school districts and teachers serving children with ASD."
DeAnn Lechtenberger, director of the center's Connections for Academic Success and Employment (CASE) program, said the honor is significant because the Burkhart Center, which opened in 2005, is relatively new compared to other institutions.
"The Council for Exceptional Children is an organization I have been involved with and supported for more than 30 years as a professional educator," Lechtenberger added. "To be recognized like this by this organization is personally very rewarding and special. The CEC website delineates their mission and vision that is so close to what our values are as faculty and staff within the Burkhart Center. This gives us the recognition from a national/international organization that will benefit the center and Texas Tech by helping attract new students and communities from around the nation to come to Texas Tech."
Supporting families and individuals
Providing information about resources to individuals with ASD and their families is a main focus of the Burkhart Center. In addition to a downloadable, online autism resource guide that includes information about topics like medical providers, navigating the special education process and community events for those in Lubbock and the West Texas area, the center provides information about state and national resources.
It also offers several programs and services for individuals with ASD of all ages. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) services include focused ABA that provides targeted support for behavior and learning challenges and social skills classes that provide targeted intervention and support aimed at helping an individual develop social skills related to academic, social and vocational success.
The Burkhart Transition Academy is a program for high school graduates that emphasizes job, social, independent living and leadership skills. The academy provides opportunities to complete internships and obtain employment with partners on and off campus, like the Quiznos Sub Sandwich Restaurant at Texas Tech and Wild Rabbit Farms, a local private garden where students learn about growing, harvesting and selling produce.
The CASE Program gives students with ASD and other complex disabilities at Texas Tech and South Plains Community College the tools and support they need to transition to and succeed in higher education and secure competitive employment after graduation. The program currently serves 35 students, some of whom receive financial support to participate in the program through a contract with the Texas Workforce Commission.
"We are the only program in Texas that is collaborating with a four-year university and a community college to help students navigate college academically and socially," Lechtenberger said. "The purpose of the program is to help students deal with navigating the things that maybe aren't so blatantly stated. Their academics are usually fine – it's their executive-function skills, their social skills and being able to read the non-stated rules of going to college."
Autism education and training for educators and professionals
Through the ABA Training Program, the center offers three degree plans, a master of education in special education with an emphasis on ABA, a graduate certificate in ABA and a doctoral degree in special education. In addition to coursework, the programs provide an intensive practicum that gives students the hands-on experience needed to obtain certification as a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), typically the highest level practitioner in autism education.
The center also leads innovative programs that aim to increase autism education, training, treatment and support to underserved, rural communities across Texas. Established in 2015, the Teacher Training Institute trains educational professionals in those communities as autism spectrum disorder experts, behavioral coaches and BCBAs.
"Our primary focus when we're recruiting students and talking with individuals interested in the program are educators in public education working specifically with students with autism," said Jennifer Hamrick, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership and a BCBA within the Burkhart Center. "They're able to take coursework that will allow them to be eligible to sit for board examination and behavior analysis, and give them the skills to provide better teaching within the classroom and make more informed decisions about what's happening with the students in their classroom based on the science of human behavior."
In 2018, the center was awarded a $475,000 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to expand their Autism Training Workshop Series on Functional Behavior Assessments to 20 regional education service centers across Texas. An additional $300,000 THECB grant, awarded through the 2019-20 Autism Grant Program, allowed for the creation of the center's Mobile Outreach Clinic for Autism (MOCA). The MOCA officially launched in March, with Hamrick taking training and support to individuals and families in underserved, rural communities in West Texas.
Research, community outreach and programming
The Burkhart Center also is a leader and partner in numerous multidisciplinary research projects aimed at improving understanding of ASD and improving the lives of those in the ASD community.
Burkhart faculty and staff members work with the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts to provide opportunities in visual arts, theater and dance and music. The BurkTech Players, a community theater company at Texas Tech, allows Burkhart students the chance to work with students in the School of Theatre & Dance to deliver productions in the fall and spring semesters.
A project in the center's Research in Early Developmental Studies Laboratory, which involves researchers from the College of Human Sciences' Department of Human Development and Family Studies, uses robots and eye-tracking technology and focuses on early intervention in young children with ASD. Another project also focusing on early intervention therapy explores the impact of therapy dogs on children with ASD and involves researchers from the Department of Animal & Food Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.
"We think the best services happen when they're informed by active research," Dotson said. "We think the best training is informed by people who were being trained themselves and are learning to be professionals here in the field. We think the best research is in partnership with the communities that research is meant to help. So all of our clinical services are staffed by undergraduate and graduate students who are learning to be specialists in autism intervention.
"All of our graduate programs require that the students complete both research and clinical experiences here and all of our research teams are working on projects that we can document have demonstrated benefits to the clients and the participants in the studies that participate."
In addition to research, the Burkhart Center is active in the community, including leading events and a lectures series; hosting ASD educators and professionals from across the U.S. at the annual Autism Conference; offering a summer day camp, Camp Burkhart, for children with ASD; leading the annual Burkhart Walk for Autism Awareness; providing supervised care once a month for children with ASD and their siblings through Parents' Night Out; and participating in local events like the First Friday Art Trail.
Dotson said the recognition from the CEC is the result of the Burkhart Center's hard work and dedication to improving the lives of those in the ASD community, whether through research, programming or education.
"The CEC is the largest professional organization in special education, and their reach is international," Dotson said. "They host thousands of people a year at their conferences, boast members from around the world and are recognized as a premier and influential organization in education. Being recognized alongside programs from such prestigious universities as the University of Kansas and Cornell University shows that the hard work our team is doing is being noticed for its impact and innovation.
"We're proud to be a part of a College of Education that has put Texas Tech on the map as a center of innovation in education, and we are looking forward to using this recognition to further grow our partnerships and reach to ensure that Texas teachers and students continue to receive the best support possible."