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University gains $1.25 million federal grant for autism-related training

The Project INTERACT leadership team includes (from left) Billy Ogletree, Amy Rose, Johanna Price, Karena Cooper-Duffy and Jon Campbell.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a $1.25 million grant to Western Carolina University for groundbreaking instruction to prepare professionals for work with children with autism.

The grant will be distributed over five years to the university and used to train 60 graduate students in psychology, special education and speech-language pathology programs on how to address the complex needs of children with autism spectrum disorders. The first 12-student cohort will be selected this semester, with a Friday, Nov. 15, deadline for applications.

Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 59 children in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum.

The funding will create an instructional program titled “INTERprofessional Autism Collaborative Training” ― Project INTERACT, for short ― to address communication, behavioral and academic needs of those on the autism spectrum. Participating graduate students will have one year of graduate school tuition free, at an in-state rate, have access to a travel fund for continuing education and, upon completion of instructional requirements, receive a certificate of training.

The WCU project team will be led by Jon Campbell, director of the doctoral program in psychology; Karena Cooper-Duffy, professor of special education; Johanna Price, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders; Amy Rose, WCU assistant professor of communication sciences, and Bill Ogletree, Catherine Brewer Smith Distinguished Professor of Communication Disorders.

“Project INTERACT is an amazing opportunity for students in psychology, special education and speech-language pathology at Western,” said Ogletree. “Given the interprofessional nature of training and the exceptionally talented faculty team, this project has the potential to change the face of service delivery for children with autism and their families.”

Participating graduate students will work with nationally recognized faculty and with the families of local children with autism. The goal is to increase both the numbers and level of training of personnel serving children with high-intensity needs in the community.

“They will receive cutting edge training to provide services for children with autism and intellectual disabilities, a population that continues to grow in Western North Carolina, as it does across the country,” said Price. “They will learn with, and from, each other through a series of integrated courses and clinical experiences.

“Families in our region who are affected by autism also will benefit as our students and faculty provide assessments, consultations and evidence-based interventions ― not just now, but for years to come, as more providers will be specifically trained to assess and treat autism and how to work together.”

For more information, contact Ogletree at or 828-227-3379.

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