August 16, 2006

New York, NY – As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to escalate, so do the increasing demands for service requests by families. However, little attention has been given to facilitate parents’ understanding of their children’s psychosexual development. Dr. Michelle Ballan, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, has developed a study to provide effective communication strategies for instruction on sexuality and autism.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of children ages 6-21 diagnosed with autism under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has increased 500 percent in the last decade. While increased public awareness of the impact of autism has led to the advancement of many family-centered services to help parents, there is still a lack of support services to teach parents how to address the growth and maturation of sexual behaviors of their children with autism.

“As more children with autism are included in the community, access to sexuality education becomes essential for them to understand the sexual norms prescribed by society,” says Dr. Ballan. “Training, guidance and support are needed for parents who desire to be the primary sexuality educators for their children with autism.”

Funded by the Silberman Faculty Grant Program, the study is based on a group intervention previously developed by Dr. Ballan to help parents of children with mental retardation understand their children’s healthy sexual development. The intervention, Growing Up Aware, was designed to impart emotional support and sexuality information for parents using a task-centered approach. The objective of the current study is to test the effectiveness of the intervention program for parents of children with autism. A sample of 120 parents of children who have mild or moderate autism, ages 6 to 13, will be recruited to participate. Through open-ended interviews with parents of children with autism and reviews of the intervention by Parent and Professional Advisory Committees, the program will be refined to address the specific needs of parents of children with autism. The findings will also be useful for social work practitioners working in schools.

Dr. Ballan worked as a Clinical Social Worker for Safeplace in Austin, Texas and served in this capacity as a curriculum development specialist, group facilitator and sexuality educator for children and adults with developmental disabilities. While employed as a Social Worker for North Princeton Developmental Center, Dr. Ballan provided sexual counseling and case management services to clients with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. She also served as a clinician for the non-profit agency, Women Helping Women. Prior to obtaining her M.S.W., Dr. Ballan was a family support specialist for the New Jersey Brain Injury Association.

For more information, please contact Jeannie Yip at 212-851-2327 or jy2223@columbia.edu.

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