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Autism Awareness — and Beyond

Gutman Library Lighted Up Blue
Gutman Library during the Light It Up Blue campaign in 2015
Photo: Iman Rastegari

In March 2020, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in 54 children in the United States are affected with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). With ongoing essential research, intervention design, and innovative curriculum building for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and their families, HGSE alumni are helping to lead the way into a future where educators, parents, and policymakers have the knowledge, tools, and resources to best support these children as they learn and grow.   

Over the years, HGSE has been dedicated to making an authentic difference in the lives of people with autism spectrum disorder — pushing new research and creative innovative, artful learning experiences. 

Rhoda Bernard, Ed.M.'99, Ed.D.'04

As managing director of the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs (BIAESN; formerly the Students on the Autism Spectrum program), Rhoda Bernard, Ed.M.'99, Ed.D.'04, brings music education to students with special needs and works to train other educators to do the same through graduate programs and professional development in arts education. With lessons in music, theater, and dance, the programs for children with autism and other differences don’t aim mainly to provide therapy. Instead, the aim is to develop talent and provide an outlet for children interested in the arts. Currently, Bernard and colleague Lori Landay have launched the Immersive Tools Project, which explores the use of virtual and augmented reality tools as potential interventions for students with autism to increase their comfort level with public performance and recitals.

April Boin Choi, Ed.M.’13, Ph.D.’19

In her research, April Boin Choi, Ed.M.’13, Ph.D.’19, seeks to increase early detection of autism in infants. Working in the Boston Children’s Hospital Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience, directed by Professor Charles Nelson, Choi has studied the hand gestures of infants at high risk for developing autism, finding that at-risk infants do, in fact, have fewer gestures than those not at risk, an important discovery that could lead to detection much earlier than the current average age of 4 — leading, in turn, to earlier interventions. Choi continues to work in the Nelson Lab as a postdoctoral fellow investigating factors associated with social communication and language in infants at risk for ASD and examining the effects of parent-mediated early intervention for children with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, a rare genetic disorder associated with ASD.

Melanie Gertzman, Ed.M.’18

With Bluelaces Theater Company, co-founder and executive director Melanie Gertzman, Ed.M.’18, works to bring distinctive, authentic, and multisensory theater experiences to audiences with autism and other developmental differences. With camps, workshops, and performances at venues such as the American Reparatory Theater in Cambridge and Lincoln Center in New York, Bluelaces provides opportunities for participation, play, and interaction with the performance, based on individual comfort level. Bluelaces strives to create safe spaces for audience members and their caregivers to experience art and express themselves.

Angela Nelson, Ed.M.’13

Angela Nelson, Ed.M.’13, founded Stages Learning Materials in 1997 when she was an undergraduate at UCLA and diagnoses of autism were on the rise in the United States. What started with Nelson creating handmade flashcards to help teach basic language and communication skills to individuals with autism and related disorders has now grown into one of the foremost providers of supplemental learning materials for the field. The products — from posters and game kits to online apps and curriculums — are designed to stimulate learning at all stages of language development, both at school and at home. Based in Cambridge, Stages Learning Materials maintains a strong connection to HGSE, with many alumni on staff and faculty on the advisory board, as well as by welcoming HGSE students each year who are working at the intersection of research and new technology.

Kwan Hansongkitpong Ross, Ed.M.’10

Kwan Hansongkitpong Ross, Ed.M.’10, has made it her mission to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorder in her home country of Thailand. For Ross, a clinical psychologist specializing in children with autism and other special needs, this mission makes a through-line in her work since before her time at the Ed School. She founded the nonprofit Autism Awareness Thailand in 2009 and has gone on to the role of clinical director and head of psychological and behavior therapies at the Little Sprouts Children's Centre in Bangkok. She continues to strive for acceptance of and support for children with differences as part of the Rainbow Room, a nonprofit special needs awareness center consisting of parents, families, and friends of individuals with developmental and behavioral special needs, including autism, Asperger’s, and other challenges.

Eric Sasson, Ed.M.’98

Eric Sasson, Ed.M.’98, and his wife Debbie have said that they founded Camp Akeela for the “quirky” kids — many of whom have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, or a nonverbal learning disability. With a focus on social and emotional wellbeing, Camp Akeela aims to help its campers develop the social and life skills needed to become successful adults, all within a traditional sleepaway summer camp. Knowing that many of their campers thrive on structure and may be anxious about the experience of living at camp, the Sassons and their staff work to get to know their campers long before the summer, preparing them for what to expect at Camp Akeela. And camp doesn’t end when summer does, as the Sassons maintain its website throughout the year, providing support through resources and virtual programming for the campers and their families. – Marin Jorgensen

This is just a sample of the HGSE alumni working in the field. If you or someone you know is doing this important work, please tell us your story.

Learn More and Connect

Learn about the autism research being done at the Nelson Lab at Children's Hospital Boston.

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