LOGAN – Since 2003, the Autism Support Services: Education, Research, and Training (ASSERT) program at Utah State University has helped provide early intervention to children with autism, giving the children the best chance possible at overcoming some of the disorder’s obstacles. Now, a new Russian program opening this month will apply the same techniques. It will be the country’s first early-intervention public autism program and will be based on the USU ASSERT program.
ASSERT director Thomas Higbee has been working in Russia for almost six years helping train teachers who work with kids with special needs. A non-government organization sponsoring Higbee’s work became interested in starting a true intensive preschool program. Teachers and psychologists came to USU to train at ASSERT, then returned to build their own program based on that model.
“They know about our history here and our record of success,” Higbee said. “So they thought ‘Let’s start with something that works.’ So that’s why they came here.”
The new center will be located in Nizhny Novgorod and will be funded by local government and Russian charity called the Naked Heart Foundation. Higbee said there is a “huge need” for the program.
“There are some private programs,” Higbee said. “But this will be the first public program where the families are not going to be responsible for all the costs associated with the program, so that’s really unique.”
Higbee said autism affects communication, social behavior and causes behavior problems. The program is designed to address all three areas.
“It’s more than just like going and seeing the doctor once a week or going to see a speech therapist once a week,” he said. “It’s 20-25 hours a week of intensive intervention where we’re teaching you how to do the things you haven’t learned to do on your own, where we’re specifically working to decrease the behavior problems that go along with autism and teach you other ways of getting your wants and needs met.”
According to Higbee, research shows that when it comes to autism, the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome. The earliest age most children go to school in Russia is seven. This new system would put kids into a program at three or four. Higbee said it will also help prepare the children to possibly enter into a normal school, instead of being kept at home.
“(In Russia), they are really just kind of learning about the idea of the importance of providing education to kids with severe disabilities,” he said. “They were hidden for a long time or sent to institutions and didn’t receive education like kids do now over here.”
Higbee said he will be going back in Russia in the spring to provide consultation, but one of his graduate students is in Russia providing training. He said he hopes the new program will be a demonstration program that will prove its worth so similar programs can be established through the country.