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Rising To The Challenge

Monday, April 24, 2017

Trinity alumnus founds autism research clinic at UTSA

by Carlos Anchondo ’14

In the heart of San Antonio, a colorful macaw flies gracefully, hovering in the clouds. A lone polar bear sits near an ocean teeming with fish and a zebra competes for shade with a flock of pale pink flamingos. The sky is a radiant sapphire blue.

This picturesque scene is not the San Antonio Zoo, but wall murals at UTSA's TEAM Center clinic. The clinic, founded by Lee Mason '03, serves children with autism and other intellectual disabilities using an applied behavior analysis (ABA) approach. Established in 2013, the clinic is a verbal behavior laboratory where student and faculty research teams collaborate to address the many challenges of autism. Mason, an associate professor of special education at UTSA, directs the clinic and the entire Teacher Education: Autism Model (TEAM) Program.

"The clinic was founded to provide a more authentic learning environment for students," says Mason, a board certified behavior analyst. "Students gain a real-life application of these behavior analytic services, which culminates in innovative practices for more effectively working with children with autism."

The clinic, located at UTSA's downtown campus, functions as a teaching hospital where two students, or ‘behavior therapists,' are assigned to one child. Graduate students seeking certification as behavior analysts are able to apply classroom knowledge in a real-life setting. The goal is to promote more effective verbal behavior and reduce problem behavior.

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that impairs communication and social interaction. Mason, a Trinity humanities major, first became interested in autism as a volunteer at Camp Summit, a residential camping experience in north Dallas. Still enrolled at Trinity, Mason recalls his summers there as a personal attendant helping to dress, feed, and bathe camp participants. Watching campers ride horses and navigate ropes courses, Mason developed a great respect and "love for working with people with special needs."

Today at the clinic, success is whenever a child makes progress, no matter how big or small.

"If the children in the clinic are making progress, then our undergraduate and graduate students are making progress," says Mason. "Sometimes it is small steps, like the first time that a child begins to speak, because it definitely takes a community to raise a child with autism."

The TEAM Center currently serves eight children per semester, although a waitlist currently stands at more than 500 individuals in need of ABA services. The clinic typically serves the early childhood age range, although children as old as 18 have come in for social skills development. Since the clinic launched, it has built upon its comprehensive verbal behavior laboratory, with interventions run by students, and will be adding a feeding laboratory this fall where children with feeding difficulties and eating disorders can be assisted. An assistive technology laboratory is also in development.

As a Trinity student, Mason prepared for a career serving children with disabilities by taking classes in linguistics from English professor Bates Hoffer, history courses with Allen Kownslar, and education courses with Karen Waldron. After earning an MEd in special education from Stephen F. Austin State University, Mason became a special education teacher before returning to school a final time, at Utah State University, to earn a Ph.D. in education.

It was not long however, before the pull of San Antonio beckoned him back to Texas.

"There is a familiarity with San Antonio, knowing its needs and being able to relate to the residents," says Mason. "I have a love for the diverse culture here that keeps bringing me back."

Among San Antonio's needs is addressing a rising rate of children with autism. A Kronkosky Charitable Foundation study puts one in every 79 individuals in San Antonio somewhere on the autism spectrum. A large Hispanic population, largely underdiagnosed for ASD, is one reason why the TEAM Center cannot keep up with the demand for services. UTSA students' participation in the TEAM Program keeps the clinic running at maximum capacity.

Mason has also secured funding from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, totaling nearly $1,000,000, for two major initiatives. One trains teachers and peer educators who provide direct services to school-age students with autism and a second provides behavior analytic training for military families with an autistic child. More and more, Mason has taken on an administrative role as the search for future funding remains imperative.

As the TEAM Center matures, Mason says he is rewarded daily by "the joy" of interacting with students with disabilities. So while he may be a Roadrunner now, Trinity sure is proud to count Mason among our Tiger family.

Carlos Anchondo is a writer and editor for University Marketing & Communication. He is a 2014 graduate of Trinity and can be found at @cjanchondo.