The Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Jacksonville State University announced on January 28 that it will be establishing a new Center for Autism Studies.

Dr. Janet Bavonese is the center director and head of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Valerie Wheat, instructor of special education, is the associate director.

The center intends to become a central resource where many of the needs resulting from Autism Spectrum Disorders can be met.
“The main goal is to become a hub,” Bavonese said, “where we can help people advocate for what they need; we can help teachers to do better with these types of students, as well as students themselves, and we can help people to know that they are not alone in dealing with this.”

When speaking on how Autism disorders affect the Department of Education, Bavonese said, “We know that there are more and more students in classrooms today that are identified as having autism or may need to be identified. So we started thinking about what we could do from our end to help in that issue.” For Wheat, it is an issue that directly affects her; she has a nephew who is on the autism spectrum.

“It was always an area of interest, but after that it became very personal; it became a passion of mine,” she said. She said she wants to use the center “to give a voice to those without a voice.”

The department has held an annual autism conference for the past two years, and according to Bavonese, the conferences spawned the idea for the center.

“We know that when we’ve had our autism conference, we have had a lot of participation. We get a lot of questions and there seemed to be a need,” she said.

Bavonese and Wheat will hold the next conference in June; it is the currently the main focus of the center. “When we host the Autism conference we get teachers of course, but we get a lot of parents, and also community resources that come,” Bavonese explained. During the conferences, someone who is on the autism spectrum has always been the keynote speaker.

Bavonese said the center is focusing on defining goals for the first couple of years and looking at funding sources. She said she wants the center to impact the local area, and eventually make an impact both statewide and nationally.

Wheat said she wants to arrive at a place where educators have “a natural capacity for how to accommodate students with autism spectrum disorders.”

She also wants to assist these students on the spectrum with the transition from high school to college, which is an especially big change in their lives. For now, the center is working to develop partnerships with the psychology department and disability support services at JSU, as well as searching for funding.

“We know that people out there will give to something like this. We really want to get the word out about what we are trying to do, and get people to help us by supporting what we are doing,” Bavonese said.

Alexander Cooper
Staff Reporter

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