Seven-year-old Madison works enthusiastically on her conversation skills with Lynn Koegel, the Clinical Supervisor at UCSB’s Autism Research and Training Center at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.

Madison, an autistic child, came to the center at UCSB with very few language skills. The center’s use of innovative techniques has helped Madison improve these skills and has contributed to the overall success of the center.

The center was recently named as one of the top 10 most effective autism intervention programs in the country by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and has given children like Madison new hope in tackling their disability.

Autism affects one in every 500 children and is characterized by mental, emotional and social problems. Autistic children generally have problems interacting with peers and with social development, as well as having a limited number of interests, Lynn Koegel said.

“They don’t normally play like other children. They might do repetitive behaviors like rocking or hand clapping, or play with a toy over and over again instead of playing with it in a normal way,” she said.

Although the physical cause of autism is still unknown, the center has been working to develop techniques to help alleviate the symptoms of autism. These techniques are taught to the parents and teachers of these children so that treatment can be extended to all aspects of the child’s life. The center is famous for the use of a technique called Positive Behavior Intervention treatment, which rewards good behavior without punishing the bad.

“It has the same effect [as the punishment and reward technique] – that is, to increase the positive behaviors and decrease the negative behaviors – but we do it without having to use aversive techniques,” Lynn Koegel said.

Madison was responding well to these techniques, and her mother reports that she is performing above average in school. Robert Koegel, the Autism Research and Training Center director, said he expects Madison to have a complete recovery. He believes that when an autistic child overcomes his or her disability, society is left with a truly amazing person.

“These kids are humble and don’t put forth false pretenses; they don’t lie – they are honest, genuine people with hearts of gold. As they overcome their disability, these strengths remain,” Robert Koegel said.

Many autistic children also have amazing abilities, sometimes at the genius level, with math, music and art. The center has helped to improve the lives of both autistic children and their families.

“Children with autism have one of the most severe disabilities that exist. The lives of these children and their families could be ruined, but the center has helped the children to use the strengths they have to help them lead happy lives,” Robert Koegel said.

There are currently 12 graduate and 30 undergraduate students involved in the program. Undergraduate students with a GPA of at least 3.5 and who have upper-division standing can work with the center and earn credit. For more information, e-mail Danny at