UMass Lowell autism studies program partners with new learning center
A growing partnership between the university’s Autism Studies Program and a new treatment center in Lowell offers great opportunities for both.
The PrideStar Center for Applied Learning (PCAL), which opened in April 2016, employs more than a dozen UMass Lowell alumni – and is looking to the university to fuel its expansion by providing more staff.
For the university, PCAL offers a nearby location for student internships and, potentially, practicums in a clinic-based setting, as well as a possible site for research, says Asst. Prof. of Psychology Rocio Rosales, who oversees clinical experiences for students in the Autism Studies master’s program. Currently, most practicum sites are in schools or with agencies who send staff to work with clients in their homes.
“We have a few center-based practicum sites already, but they aren’t close by, so it’s ideal that PCAL is only a few miles from South Campus,” Rosales says. “It’s also very exciting for me and other faculty members in the university’s Center for Autism Research and Education (CARE). Because we don’t have a clinic on campus, it can be difficult to get families to come to the university to participate in research studies, so having a facility like PCAL nearby is a great alternative. We hope to collaborate on research projects with them.”
PCAL’s center is designed for children ages 2 to 22. Upstairs, rooms like those in a home, including a kitchen, a bathroom with a washer and dryer, a bedroom and a rec room, help teenagers develop life and vocational skills from socializing to cooking and doing laundry. Downstairs, the space looks more like a colorful elementary school classroom, with educational toys and games instead of books.
“The clinic-based services model is a growing trend, and we’re the first to offer it in this area,” says Frank McCabe, executive vice president of PCAL and one its four co-founders, all longtime friends who grew up together in Lowell. “There’s so much complexity to autism, so we’ve put together a place completely designed around these children’s needs and behaviors.”
McCabe speaks from experience: He has a 14-year-old son with autism. When his son was diagnosed at age 2, McCabe knew nothing about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so he turned to a friend from elementary school: Lyn Snow, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who worked in public schools.
“Lyn became my tour guide for my son – where to go, how to access services, what do we do next – because you get that news and you really don’t know where to go,” McCabe says.
A couple of years ago, McCabe and Snow got together with two other childhood friends: David Daly, CEO and owner of PrideStar EMS, Daly General Contracting and the Daly Group; and Jonathan Miller, chief financial officer for all three companies. Out of that meeting, PCAL was born. It shares a building with PrideStar EMS, and Daly’s construction company built the new center to Snow’s specifications.
Now, PCAL serves about 30 families, with a couple of preschoolers there during the day and 12 to 15 children in the building on weekdays after school, vacation days and Saturdays, each working one-on-one with a staff member. PCAL staff teach skills to children in the controlled environment of the clinic first, then help them “generalize” those skills to their homes and the community.
Snow recently spoke to Rosales’ undergraduate Learning and Behavior class about PrideStar’s clinic-based model, offered tours to the students and invited them to apply for jobs.
“We really can’t hire enough,” McCabe says. “We’ve had such wonderful luck with the UMass Lowell students, both graduate and undergraduate, who want to get into this field. We want to build on that.”
Rosales and Assoc. Prof. Richard Serna are particularly interested in language development for children with ASD from bilingual families. One of Rosales’ graduate students, Kristine Trapani, is planning to do research at PCAL on more efficient strategies for teaching language to children with ASD, and Rosales hopes more will follow.
PCAL, for its part, has already hired one UMass Lowell graduate who is fluent in Portuguese – Tabatha Candido ’15, ’17 – and is in the process of hiring another clinician who is fluent in Spanish. McCabe says PCAL would also like to hire UML students fluent in some of the languages spoken by Lowell’s Southeast Asian-American families.
PCAL’s associate director, Alissa Rahilly ’02, ’12, and its program coordinator, Alexis Kitsakos ’15, are also UML graduates. Rahilly works directly with children as a Registered Behavior Technician in the afternoons. The other half of her job is coordinating information from doctors, the public schools and parents to help families get insurance coverage for the services their children need.
Kitsakos, who majored in psychology and minored in disability studies, likes the clinic-based model – and enjoys the challenge of working with children from preschool through the teen years.
“I feel like there’s much more structure here, and we can work on a variety of skills,” she says. “It’s interesting working with teens, because we have to understand all the emotional and hormonal changes they’re going through.”
PCAL also employs many part-timers who are UMass Lowell graduates. They work on Saturdays, vacation days and weekday afternoons after they finish their full-time jobs in schools.
One of them is Beth Nolan-Stack ’08, a BCBA who earned her graduate certificate online from UML. In the Lowell public schools, Nolan-Stack oversees plans to help children with all kinds of special needs achieve their academic potential. At PCAL, she likes the change of pace.
“I like that it’s clinic-based and not focused on academics, but [rather] social skills and practical tasks and functional communication,” she says. “It’s a nice balance.”