Interview with Dr. Jan Blacher, advocate for autism awareness

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Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

Dr. Jan Blacher is the founder and director of the UCR Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community and Hope Center (SEARCH) that researches and educates people about autism. In observance of Autism Awareness month, the distinguished professor in the UCR Graduate School of Education enthusiastically shared some of her knowledge about the disability and the importance of its awareness in an interview with the Highlander.

Although she never intended to focus solely on autism, the growing prevalence of the disability was an important factor that led Blacher to her research. “When I was training we had to look far and wide to find a child with autism. Now I can barely go to the grocery store … I see them everywhere, so the phenomenon is very real,” said Blacher.

Eventually, her involvement led her to one project (of many) studying autistic children transitioning to schools. “What sucked me in was this clinical work with families [of autistic children] who were undergoing this transition to school and it wasn’t going well at all. And that was the underpinnings of the study I’m doing now: to try and figure out which children are more successful and why; from a parent’s perspective, a teacher’s perspective and in a way the child’s perspective, too.”

Through her studies at the SEARCH Center, Blacher and her team of researchers dedicate themselves to children that range across the autism spectrum. They are also steadfast in upholding “the UCR Promise” of giving back to the community. “We’re different from most centers because we do research and I train doctoral students to do research with families and autism and with school, but if they work or are funded through this center, they have a 10-hour a week obligation in service to the field,” Blacher said. This means that researchers are committed to giving back to the community and are “doing some really tangible outreach in autism as well as some ‘ivory-tower’-learned techniques and publishing papers.”

Since the demand for knowledge and education about autism is ever growing, Blacher is hopeful for opportunities to further propel awareness through her work. At UCR, she sees numerous ways to involve the campus, students and faculty with her research. Future plans for SEARCH include creating a curriculum for professors and staff in order to better educate students with the disorder. “One of the things that we’re trying to do is make faculty of students that may be on the spectrum aware of the kinds of diversity of the students they’re teaching, and be more accepting of it.” Eventually, Blacher may team up with the UCR School of Medicine, with hopes to “stand in the community and make it known that UCR is also aware of the kinds of problems that its constituents are bound to.”

Blacher also emphasized the importance of autism awareness and the Latino community near UCR. “Many of these communities have been left out … it’s time for them to get greater access to services, early on when it counts … so we can get these kids identified and get them assistance.”

Above all, Blacher hopes that people, especially at UCR, understand two messages about autism. “People should be positive about autism. Some children that have autism are very bright, and UC-qualified; they may go to a UC campus like UCR. And I hope that college students at UCR will better understand peers on the spectrum, and that the UCR faculty will see beyond the social communication deficits and awkwardness that characterize autism. The same message goes to the community: autism is a disorder that is becoming a common disorder—one that we should all be aware of and embrace.”

The university has been celebrating Autism Awareness Month since early April. The Bell Tower was lit up with blue light for two weeks in recognition of the month. In addition, Blacher will host an event on Tuesday, April 23 at HUB 260 entitled “1 in 88, Autism in Your Community and Why You Should Care.” The lecture will be free to the public.

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