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Regis adds master’s degree focused on autism treatment

As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder continues to rise, Regis College in Weston is creating a program to train professionals in the most common treatment therapy.

Next year, the college will begin a master of science program in applied behavior analysis, which is used to improve certain kinds of behavior, such as communication, that are difficult for people on the autism spectrum. The demand for these services increased last year after a new state law required some health insurance plans to cover the cost of diagnosing and treating autism spectrum disorders.

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Before coverage was mandated, many families could obtain behavior therapy only by paying privately, or if they had children in a school district that hired behavior analysts. Regis says it is creating only the fourth master of science program in applied behavior analysis in Massachusetts.

“The programs are definitely increasing across the nation because more and more research is coming out all the time supporting the treatment,” said Lauren Beaulieu, director of the new program.

Meanwhile, the number of diagnosed cases continues to increase; earlier this year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study suggesting 1 in 88 children have been diagnosed. More boys — 1 in 54 — than girls are diagnosed.

‘A lot of kids can make significant progress and reduce the amount of support that they need long-term.’

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Parents have increasingly sought treatment for children with autism, from medicine to treat symptoms to diet and vitamins, but more research is needed, authorities say. Behavior analysts focus on how their clients learn, using tools such as positive reinforcement.

“Behavior analysis is the most empirically supported treatment for kids with autism,” said Jillian Bennett, director of the Massachusetts Applied Behavior Analysis Center at Boston Neuropsychological Services in Needham.

Behavior management as a theory of treatment dates to psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov, early in the 20th century, and later B.F. Skinner, and has been applied increasingly in recent decades. In applied behavior analysis with autistic children, therapists work on skills that are useful in everyday activities — communicating their needs to others, for example.

In the past few decades, researchers have devoted more study to behavior analysis.

“A lot of kids can make significant progress and reduce the amount of support that they need long term,” Bennett said. “A small percentage of kids can make so much progress that they no longer qualify for a diagnosis of autism.”

But there are too few applied behavior analysts to meet demand, Bennett said. “I can tell you every ABA program in Massachusetts has a waiting list.”

Regis officials say their program is being designed to help graduates apply behavior analysis techniques in other areas besides autism spectrum disorders, including special and general education.

“It’s designed to prepare students to work in a variety of settings,” Beaulieu said. “Right now, one of the most popular applications of ABA is working in special ed or working with individuals with autism disorders.”

The master’s degree program will start small, with two classes in the spring semester, and is designed to be completed in two years for full-time students. Regis hopes to enroll 20 students in the master’s program each year, Beaulieu said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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