Transforming people with autism and the students who support them
The Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University

By Mike Gabriele

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country. One out of sixty-eight children aged three to seventeen has been diagnosed with autism. And with more than 50,000 autistic teenagers turning 18 every year, the number of adults needing support is rising fast. The Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia follows two very important missions. It attracts and educates a much-needed pool of future autism professionals, and while doing so, serves an ever-expanding population of families with autistic children and adults.

Marking eight years since its founding in 2009, the Kinney Center has grown to 140 students enrolled in a SCHOLARS program serving 800 families affected by autism. These SCHOLARS (Students Committed to Helping Others Learn about Autism Research and Support) are SJU undergraduates majoring in autism behavioral studies, psychology, or special education. While earning their degree, they serve 10 to 15 hours per week, Monday through Saturday, working directly with autistic individuals.

“The program is very challenging,” admitted Executive Director Ryan Hammond. “Students spend 80 hours over the summer training and honing their skills on everything from teaching therapeutic rapport to writing a behavior plan.” The center organizes the people it helps into three groups—youth (up to age 10), transitional (ages 11-18), and adults. There is also a program specifically geared to sports and recreation.

“Working at the Kinney Center gave me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that I never had before,” said Christine Dignam, a 2015 graduate. “I felt like I was part of something that really made a difference.”

The Kinney Center at SJU held it its second annual Kinney Prom to give young adults with autism the chance to plan and have their dance.

Hammond agrees that it is very rewarding to see how the students interact with and help those struggling with the effects of autism. “Assisting them with basic social skills can be a huge hurdle and a real victory,” she says. One example Hammond cites is a 17-year-old boy who waved his fingers in front of his face up to 95% of the day, a condition known as stimming. He was unable to obtain a job and had challenges engaging socially due to this behavior. But through a comprehensive behavioral intervention plan developed under the supervision of a board-certified behavior analyst from the Kinney Center, and dedicated work with SJU SCHOLARS, amazing progress was made. He first decreased his stimming down to 50% of the time, allowing him to do basic data entry work, and then down to only 5% of the time, enabling him to hold down competitive employment. Saint Joseph’s University also looks for jobs on campus that can be filled with autistic adults from the Kinney Center.

Earlier this spring, students working with these teenagers and young adults hosted the second annual Kinney Prom, created last year when organizers realized that this special group of people might never have the opportunity to attend such a dance. The event was a big hit again this year, and featured promposals, dancing, decorations and refreshments.

“We wanted to give them a chance to come to a prom,” said Brooke Trayer, one of the student organizers and a Kinney Center SCHOLAR. “Allow them to have that experience in an environment that’s comfortable for them.”

“We really need to take a step back and celebrate these small milestones,” adds Hammond. “It’s amazing to see the joy on these people’s faces and to see how transformational it is for our SJU students as well.”

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