TRACE: Equipping Undergrads and Educating the Community
Dr. Amanda Azarbehi, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Tyndale University College, founded TRACE (Tyndale Research and Autism and Community Education) when she joined the faculty four years ago. TRACE offers a variety of services including a summer camp, research initiatives, and various workshops to promote community education about Autism Spectrum Disorder.
This year’s summer camp is running from August 19 – August 30. The camp is a “reverse-integrated social skills day camp for children with Autism,” says Dr. Azarbehi. By “reverse-integrated” she means that children with Autism are placed in a social setting with children without Autism (referred to as ‘typical peers’), rather than placing them in a setting solely with children with disabilities. The camp provides 20-25 children with Autism and 5-10 typical peers the opportunity to develop new social skills by interacting with each other through various activities including trips to the Toronto Zoo, story-time, group singing and social skills teaching circles.
On top of the “reverse-integration” model that TRACE uses, the camp is unique and innovative in many ways.
First, the camp offers a one-to-one staff to camper ratio. Dr. Azarbehi states, “How we did that was by recruiting third and fourth-year undergraduate students to volunteer at the camp. Students write a term paper about the experience after the camp and receive a practicum course credit.” This practical experience is quite rare for an undergraduate program and has been the factor that sets Tyndale graduates apart when interviewing for jobs.
The second innovative service that TRACE offers is research for the purpose of community education. “If you put 25 children with Autism with 10 typical peers just hoping they integrate, you won’t be very successful,” said Dr. Azarbehi. After 30 minutes of attempting to socialize, each group is off doing their own thing. Seeing this data led TRACE to develop a custom training program to teach typical peers how to interact with children with Autism. The program has been so successful that TRACE is partnering with over eight day camps this summer to pilot their data and provide typical peer training.
The possibilities for this research are endless. “For next summer, we’re already talking to City of Toronto day camps who are very interested in possibly using our model in their summer programs,” said Dr. Azarbehi. “This would be amazing because they have over 600,000 registered campers every summer.”
TRACE’s research goes beyond integration. Currently, Dr. Azarbehi and her team of undergraduate students are conducting research in tracking post-training social skills for typical peers, measuring stress factors and developing coping solutions for parents with children who have Autism, tracking how religion impacts parents’ understanding of their child’s disability, developing hand-washing skills for children with Autism, and finally, studying language development among children with Autism.
The experience undergraduates receive from volunteering at TRACE camp gives them a competitive edge because the research they are doing provides unique opportunities to contribute to the field of Behavioural Analysis and even to present their research internationally. This experience has the additional benefit of being a part of educating the community and creating greater opportunities for community integration with children with Autism.