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Certificate program partners attend a March 26 press conference to announce the new training program. Left to right: Dr. Tim Ridgway, vice president, USD Division of Health Affairs; Haifa Samra, dean, USD School of Health Affairs; Steve Watkins, president and CEO, LifeScape; Laurie Gill, secretary, South Dakota Department of Social Services; Eric Kurtz, executive director, USD Center for Disabilities; Kimberly Marso, chief operating officer, LifeScape.

Dramatically rising rates of diagnosed autism in South Dakota and the entire nation have created a severe gap in treatment opportunities. That gap, widened by a shortage of certified professionals, has been a hardship for people with autism and their families. 

Addressing this gap in treatment services is a new two-year graduate level certificate program designed by the University of South Dakota’s Center for Disabilities and offered through USD’s School of Health Sciences’ Department of Public Health and Health Sciences. A third partner in this important program is LifeScape, a Sioux Falls-based organization that serves children and adults with disabilities, including autism. LifeScape will provide instructors and clinical opportunities for students in the program. 

“South Dakota desperately needs additional treatment professionals to help individuals with autism and their families,” explained Eric Kurtz, Ph.D., executive director of USD’s Center for Disabilities, an organization housed at the university’s Sanford School of Medicine. “We already have in place the infrastructure to support additional treatment professionals, including insurance coverage mandates and a licensing and regulatory body for the field. This program provides the final piece needed to increase the number of these professionals in South Dakota.”

Nationally, about 1 in 54 children have been identified as having autism. Since 2010, there has been a 1,942 % increase across the country regarding the demand for trained health professionals to help those with autism.

Eric Kurtz, Ph.D., executive director of USD’s Center for Disabilities, addressing the media at the March 26 press conference.
Eric Kurtz, Ph.D., executive director of USD’s Center for Disabilities, addresses media at the March 26 press conference.

In 2019, 1,895 South Dakota school-aged children were diagnosed with autism and received some level of service through their schools. That almost doubled the diagnosis number from 2012, and does not include children under age three, school aged children not receiving service in schools, and adults. As of January 2021, South Dakota had only 50 such treatment providers. Many South Dakota families are currently on long waiting lists as they hope for treatment and help.

Health professionals able to treat people with autism, known as Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), are graduate-level health care providers who are certified to provide treatment and support for those with autism and their families. The USD program will accept students who are already enrolled in graduate level courses or are practicing health professionals who possess at least a master’s degree level of health training. The BCBA certificate program will be offered through USD as a hybrid course offering a combination of in-person and online instruction. 

Students in the new BCBA program – set to launch in fall 2021 – will complete six graduate-level courses in sequence for two years. The seventh course is 2,000 hours of supervised fieldwork to prepare for the Behavior Analyst Certification exam. Those receiving a certificate will be able to earn between $67,000 and $96,000 annually. 

USD is accepting applications until June 1 for the first cohort in this program to begin in the fall of 2021. Enrollment is limited, and further information and registration is available by visiting by visiting the USD School of Health Sciences website here. 

“This new program focused on helping children and families is the result of much collaboration and cooperation with our partners in the state,” said Haifa Samra, dean of USD’s School of Health Sciences. “It builds around a common goal to meet a critical health care need of South Dakota families while at the same time creates a mechanism for students in health professions and practicing health care professionals to advance their career opportunities and stay and practice in South Dakota.”