WMU hosts Michigan Autism Conference


WMU students often work with special education students, including those with autism, as part of their studies. Courtesy WMU

Western Michigan University is taking a major first step this month in Michigan’s responsiveness to autism.

WMU is hosting the state’s first annual Michigan Autism Conference, Oct. 10-11, in the Fetzer Center, located at 2350 Business Court on WMU’s campus in Kalamazoo.

The event actually kicks off at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 9, with a free public presentation by Peter Gerhardt, director of education at Upper School for McCarton School in New York City.

Gerhardt has more than 30 years of experience using the principles of applied behavior analysis in support of adolescents and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder in educational, employment, residential and community-based settings. He serves as chairman of the Scientific Council for the Organization for Autism Research, and is on numerous professional advisory boards including the Autism Society of America.

Gerhardt is expected to address his research interests, which include issues related to intensity of behavior analytic instruction with adolescents and adults; community integration and employment; development of adaptive behavior competencies; positive behavior supports with complex individuals; and the use of technology to support community safety and independence.

“We’re hoping this will become an annual event,” said Stephanie Peterson, chair of WMU’s psychology department, who also will be presenting during the conference. “We’re looking at it as an opportunity to bring national experts to the campus in Michigan so local people can meet them and hear about their work, becoming as familiar as possible with evidence-based practice in our field.”

Peterson said there is a growing need for autism training and education, and West Michigan’s life sciences and health care industries can play a vital role.

“Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen an increase of autism nationally. It’s becoming a fairly high-incidence disability,” she said. “We wanted to host it at Western because our psychology department is internationally known for its training and practitioners working in the field of autism. We’re also one of the most known places for applied behavior analysis.”

Speakers include many WMU alumni and notable autism experts, including Caio Miguel, Carl Sundberg, Mark Sundberg, Jessica Frieder, Wayne Fuqua and Amy Naugle.

WMU is spending about $20,000 to host the conference; the Michigan Department of Community Health is funding half of the cost.

Check-in for the Thursday and Friday events begins at 7:30 a.m., with three morning keynote presentations beginning at 8:15 a.m., followed by a lunch break and a variety of breakout sessions and workshops for the rest of the day.

Peterson said registration is limited to 250 people, but she’s hoping future events will be larger. The conference is designed to offer practitioners, researchers and families reliable information regarding autism treatment. Cost is $120 for adults and $90 for students. Registration can be completed at michiganautismconference.org.

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