January 8, 2008: Instructor’s experience inspires new autism therapy degree program

      Tuesday, January 8, 2008
      Contact: Shelley Kean
      Tel: 604.983.7596

      (NORTH VANCOUVER, B.C.)—Dr. Ellen Domm knows intimately how thousands of families in B.C. suffer due to a scarcity of qualified professionals to treat children with autism and related developmental disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome.

      And the Capilano psychology instructor hopes a unique applied behavior analysis (ABA) bachelor’s degree program inspired by her family’s experience, which the college is launching in 2009, will help alleviate what she says is clearly a staffing crisis.

      When Domm’s seven-year-old son, Levi, was diagnosed at age three with autism, a condition affecting the brain's normal development of social and communication skills, she and her husband Perri immediately decided on an ABA treatment program.

      Although the scientifically validated therapy would be expensive – as much as three times the province’s $20,000 annual subsidy for autistic children up to age six, after which it drops to $6,000 – it was their son’s best hope for improvement.

      But when they tried to assemble a behaviour interventionist team to implement the program, Domm said they quickly found out how difficult that was.

      “Even though we had a pool of Capilano students to draw from and train, the turnover rate is quite high,” she said, “and we went through 14 therapists in two years.”

      Autism is now the most common childhood developmental or neurological disorder in the country, affecting more than 4,300 children in B.C.

      “But we have only a handful of board certified behaviour analysts,” said Domm, “and they have lengthy waiting lists.”

      So, she thought, why not offer an ABA course at Capilano with a practical component so families can count on steady pool of motivated students to work with their kids.

      She pursued the idea with fellow Capilano psychologist Dr. Cara Zaskow and with her help, and input from autism families and professionals, the course has mushroomed into Canada’s first ABA bachelor’s degree program. Scheduled to begin next January, it will operate as a cohort program, accepting about 20 students with associate degrees in psychology to train for work with autism cases, among others.

      “They’ll be qualified to become board certified associate behavior analysts, earning at least $40 an hour to start,” said Domm. “Or they can pursue a master’s degree in ABA, special education or psychology.”

      Thanks in large part to his therapy, Levi, a high-functioning autistic, is now an attentive, affectionate boy. He attends a mainstream Grade 2 class and receives 12 hours a week of academic and behavioral therapy at home.

      “I still worry about his future,” Domm said, “but what mother doesn’t? And I’m pleased that Capilano will soon be producing the professionals the autism community so desperately needs so other families won’t be left in the lurch like we were.”