New Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health

Photo: Mike Peters

Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health Associate Director Kaitlin Mulcahy reads to a young visitor.

With one child in 94 diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, New Jersey has by far the highest rate of autism in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Montclair State’s Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health opened in January to address this trend with both a new graduate certificate program and a community clinic.

New Certificate Program

New Jersey’s first developmentally and relationship-based graduate certificate program, the Post Baccalaureate Certificate in Developmental Models of Autism Intervention focuses on “the neurological basis for behaviors and what a child’s behavior reveals to us,” says Center Director Gerard Costa, an authority on autism and early childhood mental health.

Students in the 15-credit program can earn a certificate within a single calendar year. Offered through the College of Education and Human Services’s Department of Early Childhood, Elementary and Literacy Education, and administered by the Center itself, it gives teachers, mental health practitioners, and allied health professionals the comprehensive classroom and “hands-on” experience they need to assess, educate, and intervene for children with a range of developmental disabilities.

Costa notes that the multi- disciplinary curriculum combines required core courses with a choice of elective courses offered by eight department s and three colleges within the University. All 15 credits can be applied towards Montclair State’s MEd in Inclusive Early Childhood Education or—pending review—other relevant graduate programs. He looks forward to rounding out the Center’s academic offerings program next fall.

A Developmental Approach to Treating Children with Autism

Together with Associate Director Kaitlin Mulcahy, Costa spent the fall 2011 semester readying The Center’s new community clinic at 14 Normal Avenue for its January launch. “For Montclair State, the new Center is part of a natural progression to offer clinical programs to children and their families,” College of Education and Human Services Dean Ada Beth Cutler says. Mulcahy agrees, noting that a big benefit of the clinic is that it is a welcoming, homelike place where children and parents can feel relaxed and comfortable.

Staffed in part by advanced degree students, the new clinic serves children from birth to age eight and their families “who have concerns that their child is showing early signs of autism or early childhood mental health relationship, learning, or emotional issues and problems,” says Costa.

“The Center won’t just give a diagnosis of ASD. We’ll be able to unravel the components for children from the entire spectrum of ASD,” he explains. “If you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism. They are all different,” he insists. “We’re not interested in what the behavior is, but why a child behaves that way.”

For Costa, autism demands individualized assessments and interventions that take into account the neurobiological and developmental reasons for behaviors like hand flapping, spinning, or inappropriate social interactions.

“We hope to offer individual and family therapy, and both children’s group and family group therapy,” Costa says, noting that Charles Cartwright, director of the Autism Center at the YAI Network and a noted child psychopharmacologist, is on call as a clinical consultant.

A Community Resource

“The Center takes Montclair Stat e out to the community at large,” Mulcahy says, offering welcome support to school districts that are moving toward providing more inclusive classrooms for students with developmental disabilities.

Working with the staff of Montclair State’s Ben Samuels Children’s Center, the Autism Center has developed training and consultation services for schools and centers that work with children with autism. Costa is proud to be the nation’s only authorized provider of Zippy’s Friends, an international mental health promotion curriculum for children aged five to seven. A grant from the Todd Ouida Children’s Foundation funds the Center’s training of local educators in this World Health Organization-endorsed program.

Cutler adds, “The College of Education and Human Services is not an ivory tower institution. We are not only engaged in scholarship and teaching on campus, but are also engaged in serving our surrounding community.” She adds, “The Center’s approach resonates with our general approach to teaching and learning. I am thrilled that we can offer this program.”