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Mercyhurst-Canisius partner on ASD summer program

Friday, May 5, 2017

Mercyhurst University will collaborate with the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College this summer to bring the acclaimed summerMAX program for high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorder to Erie.

The students, ages 7-12, will spend five weeks focusing on issues that cause them the most trouble: social skills, interpretation of non-literal language, recognition of facial expressions and emotions, and expansion of interests.

Drs. Marcus Thomeer and Christopher Lopata, co-founders of the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College, developed summerMAX, which has been offered in Buffalo since 2003. Mercyhurst is one of the first institutions invited to replicate this highly successful program.

“We are excited to collaborate with Mercyhurst University in their offering of the summerMAX program for high-functioning children with ASD in Erie.  Our goal is to help provide evidence-based and effective programs for these children and their families,” said Thomeer. 

 “They have had opportunities over the last decade to allow others to offer this program and they never have,” noted Leanne Roberts, Ph.D., dean of Mercyhurst’s Hafenmaier College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “That speaks volumes about the caliber of our faculty in special education.”

Susan Johnson, Ph.D. (ABD), chair of Mercyhurst’s education department, will direct summerMAX, and Sarah Howorth, Ph.D., assistant professor of education, will be the faculty supervisor. Both have previously designed school-based programs for children with autism.

They’ll be assisted by three Mercyhurst students, drawn from the university’s graduate and undergraduate special education, applied behavior analysis or related programs. Canisius staff will be in Erie in June to train the instructors in their methods.

“There’s a huge need for a summer program to serve high-functioning children with autism,” Johnson said. “We’re excited to be able to use the summerMAX model because it is evidence-based – repeated studies have documented that these strategies work.”

In its first year, summerMAX @ Mercyhurst will enroll six children. The program will meet Monday through Friday from July 5 through Aug. 4.

Students will be involved in therapeutic activities from the moment they arrive at 8:30 a.m. until they leave at 4 p.m. – but they probably won’t realize it. “As with any good therapy, the students won’t know that an intervention is underway,” Johnson said. Added Roberts, “They’ll be playing to learn, and they won’t even know it. To them it will feel like going to summer camp.”

Each 70-minute therapeutic session will begin with direct instruction, followed by role play and modeling; the rest of the time the children will enjoy social activities that allow them to practice the skills they’ve just been taught.

Weekly training sessions will also be offered for parents, sharing tools that they can use with their children at home.

The cost for the summerMAX program is $900 per week, for a total of $4,500 for the summer. Half the fee is due when a student is accepted into the program.

Parents interested in enrolling their children in summerMAX @ Mercyhurst should contact Susan Johnson at to obtain an application form. Students will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.