About two years ago, Southern Oregon University’s Dr. Gregg Gassman and the Oregon Institute of Technology’s Dr. Maria Lynn Kessler and Dr. Mark Neupert were sitting together in Neupert’s office in Klamath Falls, untangling a knotted cord that may prove one day to be a lifeline to thousands.

The trio was discussing Oregon’s growing, almost desperate need for applied behavior analysts licensed to treat patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Oregon has one of the highest rates of autism in the United States and not nearly enough ABA-certified professionals to handle that caseload. The picture is particularly grim in Southern Oregon where, according to Kessler, there are only three licensed autism specialists.

In 2013, Oregon passed an autism insurance reform bill that worked ASD management and treatment into state-regulated health plans, thus providing relief to families dealing with a disorder that affected 1 in 68 children in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suddenly, families that previously could not afford the treatment were in line to receive it, but that line stretched for miles as the supply of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)-certified specialists could not come close to meeting the demand.

When Gassman, Kessler and Neupert first discussed this problem, there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done about it by either school, at least not on the surface. But the more they talked, the more they realized that, together, SOU and OIT taught students everything that they needed to know in order to help fill that gap and join the ranks of licensed behavior analysts. The only question was how to join forces.

In the end, professors, administrators and registrars from both schools worked together to create a joint academic program that Gassman, SOU’s professor of special education programs, believes could provide a blueprint for future university partnerships while simultaneously fighting one of Oregon’s most pressing health care battles.

“I’m retiring in about three weeks,” Gassman said, “and to me, I can’t think of a better way to leave than to have a program like this.

“To me it’s kind of a two-pronged, win-win kind of thing. It’s filling a need — there’s just absolutely a huge need. But it’s also establishing a collaboration with another institution. The rest of the state tends to ignore anything south of Roseburg. So for two southern Oregon universities to get together and develop a totally creative, totally innovative program I think says a lot about who we are.”

The reasons behind the collaboration lie in the offerings of each school, their limits and their strengths, as well as the state’s growing need for behavior analysts, whose intervention early on — as young as 2 years old and even a little before that, says Kessler — can significantly reduce the long-term effects of autism.

Southern Oregon University’s education department offers a flexible master’s program that can include a healthy dose of autism spectrum disorder classes, while Oregon Tech offers an applied behavior analysis graduate certificate, a nine-course sequence which is required in order to take the ABA national exam. Since Southern Oregon’s graduate program, like most others, severely limits the number of credits that students can transfer in, getting the degree approved by SOU’s graduate counsel took some convincing.

The degree required 45 credits, 27 of which came from Oregon Tech. Usually, SOU students can transfer in no more than 15, but Gassman and Kessler argued that an exception should be made.

“We made a case for it,” Gassman said. “We said, ‘Look, this is in high demand. It’s good for everyone, let’s go ahead and do it.’ And they agreed to that. They waived the transfer (maximum).”

Another hurdle had to do with the distribution of financial aid.

“We found that that was a barrier for some people who wanted to take (OIT’s) courses as a graduate certificate, but you’re not eligible for financial aid when you do that,” said Kessler, a professor of applied psychology based at OIT’s Wilsonville campus. “So now they’re eligible for financial aid. Basically, everybody wins.”

That required what is known as a consortium agreement between the two schools which allows for dual enrollment, provided that one of the schools is classified as the student’s “home base.” Students will still register for SOU classes through SOU, and OIT classes through OIT, but the agreement allows financial aid packages to work their magic on the appropriate bills.

At which campus will the students spend the majority of their time? Thanks to video conferencing technology through Zoom, a Skype-like web-based application, that question is quickly becoming obsolete. SOU students will be able to use Zoom to take classes which will be taught in Wilsonville and Klamath Falls.

“So they can be anywhere,” Gassman said. “Some of the ABA stuff occurs at the Wilsonville campus at OIT. So they’re going to be teaching the class there but they’re going to be using Zoom to bring it back to the people down here. These people could be sitting at home, or we could have them gathered together at the HEC (higher education center) in Medford.”

The Zoom technology is crucial, since the ABA program requires students to work under the supervision of licensees, which are hard to find south of Eugene. The program will place students in the field as well, where they’ll be developing the skills they’ll need on the job. The broad spectrum of experience will include school settings, as well as some home-based and center-based experience, Gassman said.

“The more I think about it,” he said, “the people coming out of this program are going to be able to work in just about any sort of setting.”

The quality of the program combined with the sheer volume of job opportunities, especially in Oregon, should make the SOU-OIT collaboration an attractive option for students. Already, only about three months after it was brought before the graduate counsel and weeks after it was approved, the new degree is gaining traction. Gassman this week has received four emails from potential students who have expressed interest in the program. He expects eight to 12 students to begin taking classes for the first SOU-OIT collaborative degree this fall.

The benefits are obvious, Kessler said. Besides the satisfaction of helping somebody in need, graduates will probably not have to look long to find work. Also, the pay scale is competitive. According to a survey conducted by the Association for Professional Behavior Analysts, the reported modal income for full-time behavior analysts in 2014 was between $65,000 and $75,000, and 30.8 percent of those surveyed reported making more than $75,000.

“When I see students who say they want to make a difference in the world, especially if they say they want to work in autism, then I’m like, ‘Well, this is what you need to do,’” Kessler said. “And even for people who aren’t sure about what they want to do I always tell them about the opportunity. It’s a pretty rewarding field to be in.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.