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College of Science & Mathematics

MA in Applied Behavior Analysis - public health to public safety

Autism rates in New Jersey are among the highest in the nation but a new masters degree at Rowan is designed to help address the issue - and provide vast employment opportunities.

The Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis, new for Fall 2009, is a 36-credit hour program designed to qualify graduates to diagnose and teach autistic children.

The program will enable graduates to become Board Certified Behavior Analysts®, a highly desired designation that school districts seek when hiring for special services positions.

Psychology Professor MaryLou Kerwin, who sought to develop a master's degree in ABA almost since her arrival at Rowan in 1996, said with autism rates at nearly epidemic levels in New Jersey, school districts are hard-pressed to find enough qualified teachers.

Results of a study by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, released in 2007, compared autism rates in four N.J. counties with 13 other states.

Of the 14 states surveyed, N.J. had the highest rate - nearly 11 cases per 1,000 eight-year-olds in 2002.

"Parents and school districts are requesting this credential for working with children with autism and other special needs," Kerwin said.

She said in 2008 as few as three dozen teachers held board certification in Applied Behavior Analysis in the seven southern N.J. counties, a qualification that requires a master's degree and a clinical internship.

"There is a dearth of board certified behavior analysts in South Jersey," Kerwin said. "But there is huge demand right now."

A maximum of 25 students will be accepted into the master's program initially, Kerwin said. In addition to the new MA, Rowan offers a Certificate of Graduate Study in Applied Behavior Analysis for students who already hold an MA.

Pioneered by famed Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner, Applied Behavior Analysis seeks to elicit "socially significant behavior" and has been widely recognized as useful in treating children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Kerwin said Applied Behavior Analysis is also useful in such divergent fields as management and criminal justice so students interested in careers in those areas would also benefit from the program. All of the program's courses will be offered at night so students who work during the day can attend, she said.

Cara Rogers, who teaches special needs students in the Deptford School District and works as a private autism consultant, said she enrolled in Rowan's new MA program as soon as she heard about it.

"I was hired (by Deptford) because they knew I was working on this program," said Rogers, 24, a LaSalle University graduate who has taken some coursework through Rowan's ABA certificate program.

Rogers said she wanted to work with autistic children in part because her younger brother is afflicted with Asperger's syndrome. That condition, one of several within the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders, is often marked by individuals with a high intelligence but very limited social abilities.

"With Asperger's, people may know what's appropriate behavior but don't know how to apply it," she said.

Rogers said Rowan's timing with the new MA couldn't have been better.

"ABA is so important because there's a big push by the state right now to bring students out of the most restrictive environments (like special services districts) into the least restrictive (traditional school settings)," she said. "But, to do that, we need really good staff."