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New course educates social workers about autism spectrum disorder

For Sherry Mergner, the statistic that 1 in 59 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not surprising. As the mother of a teenage son with ASD, Mergner, stays on top of the latest information and research because it impacts her family.

As a social worker and clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work, she’s also seen a growing need to educate students and practitioners in the field on the prevalence of ASD. There’s also a need to promote greater understanding of the disorder so that professionals are better prepared to serve individuals on the spectrum and their families. A new summer course Mergner created and is teaching hopes to do just that.

“It’s inevitable. If you’re a social worker in a clinical setting, or you’re working in a school or a hospital, you’re going to come in contact with a person on the spectrum,” said Mergner, who also serves on the clinical faculty at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disorders. “So it’s important that we’re educated about autism and neurodiversity and disabilities in general.”

Mergner’s course, “Autism Spectrum Disorder: Social Cognitive Interventions” is a five-week course that discusses the historical and current causes of ASD as well as evidence-based interventions that can help professionals meet the needs of people on the spectrum and their families. The interdisciplinary course, which has drawn students from social work, public health, education and nursing, also focuses on the social cognitive challenges that individuals with ASD face, including a higher incidence of social and behavioral problems at home and at school.

“Many of these kids look typically developing but when you start engaging with them, you can see that there’s something going on there,” Mergner said. “The way they are spoken to and treated is critical. Many of them have sensory issues, and many have core social thinking challenges and emotional regulation issues, and they’re trying to let people know, often through their behavior, that this is very challenging for them.”

Because children and teenagers with ASD are often misunderstood and misperceived, they are sometimes the target of discrimination, bullying or abuse, Mergner added. She is most passionate about educating others on these issues because she’s seen what her son has experienced in and out of the school classroom.

“This is really a social justice issue that we’re not addressing – the microagressions and the actual aggressions that happen,” Mergner said. “People with ASD have a lot of gifts and a lot of strengths that I don’t think our society has embraced.”

Mergner’s course incorporates guest speakers to give students a chance to hear first-hand from people with ASD and their families as well as from some of the professionals who work with individuals with autism. During a recent class, students listened and took notes as three guests spoke about their experiences with ASD, such as the difficulties of getting a diagnosis as an adult and the challenges of navigating social situations, including speaking in front of strangers in a small room.

“I’ve learned so much,” said first-year MSW student Molly Marus, who is enrolled in the School’s Triangle Distance Education Program. “Because one of our recent panel discussions included two people of color, they were able to share a lot of their experiences on the intersectionality of disability and race. We’ve also heard a little about the intersectionality of an individual’s experience as a queer person. My hope is to work with children on the spectrum and their families…so it’s a really big thing for me to see how all of these different identities intersect and define your life and shape how you see the world.”

Mergner hopes to expand the class next year with the potential of reaching more social work students. As she sees it, social workers have the greatest opportunity to make a positive impact in the ASD field because they are taught to work with the whole family system. As a result, they play a vital part in ensuring the well-being of individuals with autism, she added.

“We work with the community and the schools,” she said. “We see the bigger picture, and that is essential. We have a key role, and we can be the person that engages all of those other disciplines and help people to understand ASD and neurodiversity.”