Smiling children, happy parents, and prepared educators for decades to come–this is the end result of a unique collaboration underway at the University of New Mexico.
This beneficial end result is thanks to something called Project SCENES (Social-Communication: Collaborating Early with Naturalistic Evidence-Based Supports). It’s a fairly new partnership between Speech & Hearing Sciences and the College of Education & Human Sciences’ Special Education Department.
The goal is to give future teachers or speech pathologists (SLPs) the best of both worlds in preparing them to work with autistic children.
“A lot of times what happens in graduate school is that experiences of special education students and students in clinical fields like speech-language pathology are so siloed that by the time they get in the real world, they don't really understand other fields,” Program Director and Associate Professor Cindy Gevarter said. “So one of the main purposes is to promote collaboration and understanding early on in their graduate program.”
Project SCENES directors say those coming from the special education sphere of things are able to supply information on broader child learning needs, including academics and behavioral supports. SLPs are able to provide more in-depth knowledge of simple and complex language skills, as well as communication as a whole.
With limited time in the classroom to address communication goals, the information and support SLPs need from teachers is critical. Each can inform the other on student goals and strategies. That's why instilling such a key collaboration early on in their careers is key for Project SCENES.
Project SCENES was made possible thanks to an $830,000 grant from the Department of Education. The majority of that money supports 20 graduate students, who get $26,500 stipends each during their graduate program.
Each cohort takes specialized courses across departments that allow them to learn more about autism and collaboration across fields.
“A lot of times what happens in graduate school is that experiences of special education students and students in clinical fields like speech-language pathology are so siloed that by the time they get in the real world, they don't really understand other fields. So one of the main purposes is to promote collaboration and understanding early on in their graduate program.” - Program Director and Associate Professor Cindy Gevarter
One part of the program that exemplifies close-knit collaboration, is an interdisciplinary summer autism clinic. In June, graduate students from both departments work with children ages 2 ½ to 4 who have autism or early signs of autism under the supervision of Speech and Hearing Science’s Clinic Instructor Mary Hartley.
This four week-long clinic contains morning and afternoon sessions three days a week, and serves children and their families at UNM’S Speech & Hearing Sciences Clinic. That includes a preschool classroom and playground for free.
“The interdisciplinary part is so important,” Hartley said. “This is just a wonderful opportunity to train teachers and speech pathologists to work together and then send them out into New Mexico communities prepared to do that.”
The summer clinic allows graduate students to gain an understanding of what both sides bring to the table. There are also opportunities to participate in speech-language research focused on parent collaboration during the summer program.
“It's very much a team approach. Given the nature of autism, and the focus on social communication, it's just really critical,” Gevarter said. “When you're talking about children who are going to be working on communication and language skills as a primary component of their individualized education plans, having collaboration is absolutely necessary for success.”
During the summer clinic, there is plenty of fun under the sun for both the SCENES students, as well as the children they’re assisting. Beyond creating classroom lessons that focus on socialization and communication, there’s a special community aspect for each cohort.
“There's the collaboration and also giving back to the community,” Gevarter said. “Were able to integrate the clinical experience while also involving the community. The students build relationships with each other, work together, and come up with goals together.”
There are hands-on activities, games, and favorite toys all meant to facilitate language skills, as well as social skills like sharing.
“Our students get a lot of opportunities here, and have a rich learning environment in our clinic,” Hartley said. “Students plan the whole day around kids to give the kids the best supported environment they can.”
Erin Gallegos is one of the Project SCENES students who got to combine learning and fun throughout the summer.
“Working with young children with autism who are emerging communicators is fulfilling in a way that truly needs to be experienced to appreciate,” she said. “During the Project SCENES summer clinic, opportunities to work with this population were abundant. When you work with a child who goes from being too nervous to leave their mother’s lap to being so comfortable that they are sharing joy in play with other children, it is rewarding beyond words.”
Gallegos says the meaningful relationships formed in her cohort, as well as with the kids made an impact. Gevarter and Hartley agree.
“The progress children made is almost like a wave, and it continues outside of our environment,” Hartley said.
The children and UNM students are not the only ones gaining a fun, educational experience. Hartley says parents gain a lot as well, like advocacy for their child and professional tools.
“The other outcome is that families formed bonds they got together for playdates after,” she said. “Parents were able to carry that to the home and other community settings.”
This summer clinic is just one example, Gevarter and Hartley say, of how their unique program can foster a stronger classroom and community.
“I can't stress enough the long term benefits of this training,” Hartley said. “These students are gonna carry this with them through their whole careers. It makes for lifelong learning for these adults which we all need to do.”
This summer, the first graduating cohort will walk off campus with their heads high and full of tools. Applications for the third and final cohort are due Feb. 15. Find those at the Project SCENES website.
Parents interested in signing up for the June summer clinic can contact Cindy Gevarter.