National Autism Awareness Month: Colorado State University Students Help Young Children, Adolescents, Adults in Unique Group Therapy

Note to Reporters: As part of National Autism Awareness Month in April, Colorado State University is highlighting research and programs that address autism-spectrum disorders. Photos of Lee Rosen and students are available with the news release at

For 15 years, young clients in the Social Skills Groups at Colorado State University have played with other kids, ordered fast food and talked about things that don’t interest them.

In other words, everyday activities that don’t require second thoughts for most people.

But psychology professor Lee Rosen and his doctoral students aren’t helping most people: His Psychological Services Center diagnoses elementary school-age children and young adults with autism-related disorders and teaches them basic social skills in a unique group therapy program.

Two to four doctoral students run each group – typically organized by age – for eight weeks. Ages range from 4 to 24 with a separate group for college-age students. Every group has a waiting list. For more information, contact the Psychological Services Center at Colorado State University at 970-491-5212.

The groups focus on higher functioning individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, and other social skills problems. The center has helped more than 300 children and families over the years and completed more than 500 assessments for children with autism disorders in the last 15 years.

“Through a series of contrived and planned social interactions, we engage the child, observe their behavior and then evaluate their behavior based on how they respond relative to other children in that age group,” said Rosen, who has taught in the Department of Psychology since 1984.

“We’ve been running continuously since 1993, and we’ve been told by parents that they can’t find anything else like this. At one point, we had a student write a dissertation on this group therapy and publish a book on how to form these groups, what the curriculum should look like, handouts for parents, etc.”

The curriculum for teenagers and young adults includes trips to the mall to order fast food and eat with appropriate manners. Homework includes talking to others, especially family and friends, about topics of interest to them – and then remembering what was said.

Currently, a number of students who are now in college at CSU have been in Rosen’s therapy program since they were in elementary school. The therapists, however, change as they complete the five-year program.

This year’s batch of psychologists-in-training includes Elizabeth Christensen, Lindsey Copeland, Weston Donaldson, Matthew Jaramillo, Danielle Mohr, Andrea Montoya, Stacey Park, Kasey Schultz, and Lauren Shirley. All are at different places in the program.

Montoya, a fourth-year doctoral student, illustrates a typical assessment task with young children by reaching into a toy box and dislodging an electronic game console connected to a stuffed rabbit. She pushes a button and the bunny becomes animated.

An average child could determine within a few minutes that the button is connected to the bunny and push it, but usually not children with autism-related or other disorders.

“This helps us find out if the child you’re evaluating is going to follow your gaze to something you’re looking at,” Montoya said. “You want to know if they’re paying attention enough to look at you and the bunny. Real young kids will follow your gaze, but youngsters with autism don’t do that.”

“The groups aren’t exclusive to students with autism-related disorders – we get kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD, biopolar disorder, mental retardation, etc.,” Rosen said. “In truth, it has allowed those autistic children to see individuals who are struggling in slightly different ways. It creates some models for them that they wouldn’t have seen or thought about if they’d only been looking at peers with autism.”

CSU’s own Temple Grandin and her Emmy-award winning movie has helped shine some positive light on these kids, Rosen said.

“It’s provided them some validation that ‘I’m not the only one in the world, there’s other folks that are successful and some are in fact famous,’” he said. “More than providing referrals, it has provided increased awareness and acceptance, that it’s OK to have this, it’s not a moral failing. You don’t need to hide the fact that you or your children might have autism.”

College-age students often struggle the most because they’re put in situations where they’re desperate for some social connectedness, said Matthew Jaramillo, a third-year student who runs the group for young adults.

“They really have difficulty figuring out how to get out of their dorm room and connect with some people on campus,” Jaramillo said. “Often, they are depressed.

“To get their perspective is refreshing – they tell us jokes and some are terrible, but we like the fact that they’re trying,” Jaramillo said. “By the end of the group, they go to the same game and save seats for each other. You see a lot of growth over the course of the group, and it’s fun.”

The center charges for the therapy to provide the necessary equipment and staffing. Doctoral students volunteer their time (with group leaders making a small stipend of less than $1 per hour) but they’re learning skills that lead to successful careers in psychology.

“When they apply for pre-doctoral residency training programs, it provides hours in a focused area of expertise they wouldn’t get otherwise,” Rosen said. “They develop skills and strengths that make them highly competitive in the job market as a psychologist and, more than that, they make a difference in the lives of countless individuals.”