Published June 2, 2020

Story by Melissa Kvidahl Reilly

The Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center makes a difference by serving across the spectrum

For the 1 in 34 children in New Jersey diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, going to school can be a challenge. This is especially true for the approximately one-third who are also nonverbal or have an intellectual disability, and who engage in significantly challenging behavior. And while many school districts are equipped to serve this population when they’re young, they lack the expertise necessary to educate older autistic students, whose needs greatly differ from those of their peers who are not on the autism spectrum.

Enter the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, which serves the needs of the autism community from childhood through adulthood. Its school program, run by Rutgers’ Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, is currently assisting more than 60 New Jersey students from 34 school districts. Specifically, it prepares autistic youth with advanced behavioral or learning challenges for adulthood in a supportive setting using applied behavior analysis-in other words, applying the principles of learning to improve skills of social significance. Its adult day program provides learning opportunities, supervision, and ongoing support for clients ages 21 and up.

Recently, the center enhanced its ability to take on especially challenging cases with a new model called the Intensive Support Classroom, which provides more than one-to-one staffing as well as consultation from a dedicated master’s-level behavioral analyst and oversight by a doctoral-level behavior analyst. “The focus in these cases is to address behavior that prevents students from being managed in our more traditional classroom structure at the center,” says director Catriona Francis. Donations to the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center during last year’s Rutgers Giving Day helped fund the development of this new model.

The investment, across the board, is well worth it. Since there’s no standard curriculum at the center—instruction is individualized based on the student, with input from parents and the school district—each student’s education is adapted to meet his or her greatest needs. Students may be taught practical math and language skills based on counting money or creating lists, or life skills like hygiene and communication, which can enhance independence later in life. “We also have goals related to going to restaurants, food shopping, and other practical life skills,” says Francis, adding that the center takes classes out into the community to practice, when they’re ready. “This also exposes the community to those on the autism spectrum,” she says. “It’s a nice two-way process where members of the public see our students with more significant disabilities in the community, while we help our students practice those skills they need to thrive in the community.”

The center also helps prepare community organizations and school districts to work with students on the spectrum. “As a result of training programs like ours, there are professionals in schools who are much more comfortable managing students on the autism spectrum,” Francis says. “But around age 13 or 14, the skills and behavioral discrepancies become much more apparent between individuals impacted more significantly with autism and their peers who are not on the spectrum, and many schools have trouble addressing these more significant learning and behavioral challenges.” That’s why nearly three quarters of the center’s students are over age 14; supporting the needs of this population requires extensive resources, from enhanced facilities to extra personnel.

And by training Rutgers students from psychology, social work, psychiatry, pediatrics, occupational therapy, nursing, and other areas, it prepares new generations of Rutgers graduates to work with this underserved population.



To support the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center and other programs on Rutgers Giving Day, June 17, visit


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