MSU-Billings launches new institute to help kids with autism, behavior disabilities

By: - April 27, 2022 5:07 pm

The staff of the Montana State University Billings’ Institute for Neurodiversity and Applied Behavior Analysis. Back row: Michael Passage, Tom Matheny; front row: Rene Rossell-Yarbrough, Krystin Hussain, Laura Nicholson (Photo courtesy of Montana State University Billings).

Montana, like most states, struggles with recruiting enough mental health providers and specialists to fill what seems like an ever-widening gap. Like many rural states, getting the right services can mean travel of hundreds of miles for some.

However, a new venture launched by Montana State University-Billings looks to provide services to youth, especially those with autism, and, in the process, help the Big Sky State grow its own workforce of providers and specialists.

The Institute for Neurodiversity and Applied Behavior Analysis will serve children with mental, social and behavior differences associated with autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities and other behavioral disabilities by providing direct and telehealth clinical support.

The institute will focus on applied behavior analysis, which is an individualized evidence-based treatment model that teaches skills, such as communication, life skills and social skills by intensive one-on-one work and some group work. Krystin Hussain, the institute’s director, said the unique center will work with Medicaid and offers autism-spectrum clients an intensive, tailored program. Whereas some traditional forms of counseling may happen during the course of an hour or so weekly, the applied behavior analysis works with children and youth for 10 to 30 hours per week.

The center already boasts a medical director and a psychologist, in addition to several other staff members. Because it’s housed at the university, the program will bring together behavioral health programs, like counseling and psychology, and education, with special emphasis on special education. Those students, both graduate and undergraduate, will be a key part of the institute as it trains and develops a group of professionals, including teachers, counselors and psychologists.

The institute pegs its start date somewhere near the beginning of summer and will train applied behavior analysis practitioners on site and remotely while seven behavior technicians will be on staff to provide support, training and care.

MSU-B reports it currently has 49 graduate program students in its ABA program.

“The Institute for Neurodiversity has a new way of viewing human differences,” said Dr. Tom Manthey. “Neurodiversity is seen as within the normal variation of human differences and in many cases, children with neurodiverse conditions have significant strengths not recognized by the traditional view of disabilities.”

The center will focus on children as young as 18 months and help identify the individual needs. Hussain explained that not all children need the same kind of help. Some need help learning to communicate, while others need work on social skills.

“Our goal is inclusivity so that we can transition our clients into a typical classroom,” Hussain said.

That kind of work, though, is intensive and time-consuming. That’s where the students come in. Many graduate level students working on ABA certification will work their required clinical hours through the institute, while many teachers who are considering special education may work there as well.

One of the learning areas that is being set up in the Institute for Neurodiversity and Applied Behavior Analysis at Montana State University Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“ABA is currently being used for autism spectrum disorders, but it’s more than that. ABA is for everyone who works around the development of children,” Hussain said. “We don’t sit at a table all day. We do a lot of activities and a lot of play. That’s how children learn – through play. We don’t want to make the child miserable. We want them to want to be here because it’s a fun, safe place.”

The institute can also be a home for families, one in which they can find resources they need and other parents who are in similar situations.

Skills like communication and social skills are often modeled by the behavioral technicians. Hussain said it’s not a radical approach, just working to model the correct behavior.

“And modeling is how we all learn,” Hussain said. “We don’t treat the diagnosis. We treat the behavior.”

She said the applied behavior analysis is a great tool for teachers who don’t want to be clinicians.

“They already have a hard job, and this helps give them some tools for the future,” Hussain said. “Not everyone wants to be a clinician, but it is a great way to see how we can help make a difference in the classroom.”

The institute is housed at the university’s Montana Center for Inclusive Education.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.