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Grad students train to help kids with autism


Graduate student Vissy Kobari-Wright, with Assistant Professor Caio Miguel, works with Alex Pinto, 3.
The legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner, once portrayed as a monster for his theory of behavior modification and practice of raising his infant in an air crib, provided breakthroughs in the teaching of children, especially those with autism.

Skinner’s findings are the conceptual framework for the Sacramento State Psychology Department’s Applied Behavior Analysis program, which trains graduate students to become board-certified behavior analysts.

Under the guidance of assistant professors Caio Miguel and Becky Penrod, the students conduct one-on-one sessions with youngsters who have disorders including speech, feeding and motor-skill problems. These sessions include encounters in Amador Hall with youngsters referred to the program and at Sac State’s Autism Center in Solano Hall, which accommodates 8-to-12-year-olds. Off-campus meetings take place at the ABC private school for special-needs students.

The professors and their students also conduct in-home sessions for youngsters who cannot make it to campus. And they counsel parents on the best way to modify their children’s behavior. Penrod notes that it’s crucial to get to children early to “address maladaptive behaviors and teach appropriate alternative behaviors.” Some children can be integrated into an educational system without anyone knowing they have autism, she adds.

The overarching goal is to get these youngsters to a point where they can function more effectively on a personal and academic level. The individual attention they receive helps them respond to positive reinforcement.

Miguel and Penrod were hired five years ago to revamp the Psychology Department’s Behavior Analysis program. The energetic duo set about making community contacts and generated more referrals than they could handle. The highly competitive master’s program is drawing out-of state applicants as well. “Last year we accepted six of 32,” Miguel says.

Miguel’s academic specialty is language development and treatment/research of repetitive vocal behavior. Penrod’s concentrates on behavior assessments and pediatric feeding disorders. Their experience treating these children has benefitted their respective research. Both have published extensively in professional journals.

Estimates vary on the number of children with autism, but all data suggest a dramatic rise in cases during the last four decades. In the 1970s and `80s one in 2,000 children was diagnosed with autism. Today it is six of 1,000. Males are four times more likely to have autism. The increase could be due to greater awareness and reporting of cases.

Miguel and Penrod stress the growing demand for trained behavioral analysts. “Most of our graduates work as clinical supervisors in the region,” Miguel says, “and some have received awards for their theses.”

So long as the demand for certified clinicians in California and elsewhere exceeds the supply,  there should even more interest in Sac State’s graduate program that has already exceeded expectations.

For more information about the ABA program, contact or call
916-278-6813. For media assistance, contact Public Affairs Office 278-6156.