Dr. Harold Koplewicz Establishes New Educational Program for Asperger Adolescents at NYU
The effervescent, indefatigable idealist, Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, founder and director of New York University’s Child Study Center is once again moving quickly and efficiently with his top directors to expand psychiatric programs and services for children and their families in NYC. This September, under the leadership of Lynda Geller, PhD., Clinical Director of the Asperger Institute; Xavier Castellanos, M.D., Director of Research; and Glenn Hirsch, M.D., Medical Director, the NYU Study Center will launch a research-based, full-day educational program and range of clinical services for eight academically gifted adolescents with Asperger Syndrome (AS). The key word is “adolescents.” Ninth graders are at an age when the academic and social demands become more intense. For students with Asperger syndrome, appropriate support and instruction in social and emotional areas are critical if they are to develop the necessary skills for later life success. While many students with AS function well enough through elementary school, the challenges of secondary education may overwhelm even the brightest of students.
AS, a neurobiological developmental disorder, is part of “the autism spectrum,” although within the medical community there are various interpretations about the nature of the relationship between AS, a “high functioning autism,” and the more general disorder. The NYU Child Study Center, however, will speak with one voice about the students who will be its first cohort in the fall and about how best to address their needs. New facilities are already under construction near Lexington Avenue and 32nd Street.
Those diagnosed with AS, so named for Hans Asperger (1906-1980), an Austrian psychiatrist and pediatrician, tend to have social and communication skills difficulties similar to those diagnosed with autism, but AS may not yield to early identification because so many AS youngsters are at normal or superior levels of intellectual development and do not always manifest the kinds of learning disabilities typically associated with autism. The educational component of NYU’s Asperger Institute—known as the Lab for Advanced Learning and Teaching—has already begun recruiting its first students, by way of referrals from schools and parents. It is intended to be a world-wide model for the integration of academic and social curricula, treatment, and state-of-the-art research. The goal, as Dr. Koplewicz says, is to have the Institute develop innovative, collaborative approaches “that foster the talents and dreams of children with Asperger Syndrome.”
Dr. Castellanos is enthusiastic about doing “groundbreaking” research at the Institute. The timing of the Institute’s establishment could not be better. Interest in AS began to accelerate just a few years ago when the urgency of addressing the disorder in the adolescent population became apparent, Dr. Castellanos says. He lauds the numerous national and international advisors—leaders in the field of neurology, psychiatry, brain imaging and early intervention strategies—who assisted Institute personnel in defining its mission and concentrations. His hope, he says, is to reduce the time it usually takes to make a difference to youngsters who already have spent too many years feeling ostracized or marginalized because of poor social and communications skills. The Lab will offer ample opportunity to conduct evidence-based research. Dr. Hirsch adds that while the educational program must limit the number of students participating in the inaugural year, an overarching goal is to develop and assess new specialized programs and services and to provide outreach consultation throughout the city and beyond.
As the director of the clinical component, Dr. Lynda Geller speaks passionately about the need to make AS students accepted and comfortable. To that end, the educational program will apply home-schooling methods in a small group setting, a strategy she calls “cooperative home schooling,” Students in the NYU program will receive individual and group academic tutoring from specially trained faculty and staff and also extensive counseling that will address their social needs. Because AS students (like AS adults) have difficulty relating to their peers, it is “critical for them to have an opportunity to find each other and develop supportive relationships,” Dr. Geller says. It is also important for their parents to find each other, so the Child Study Center will also focus on adult and family support groups. Many students with autism wind up in special education classes; AS students, by contrast, can often be found in the mainstream, where they suffer terribly from being teased and being “different.” The Institute would acknowledge their differences but also make them feel capable of finding their way in the real world. Although the cost of participating in the Institute is steep at this start-up point, Dr. Geller notes that there are ways public school adolescents might be able to participate.#
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