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Graduate student aims to expand autism treatment options in India

portrait of ASU grad student Preeti Lather

Preeti Lather, graduate student in ASU's Department of Psychology applied behavior analysis master's degree program. Photo by Robert Ewing

February 24, 2021

A decade ago, Preeti Lather learned her daughter was at risk of not being able to talk because of an autism diagnosis. Armed with a master’s degree in applied psychology from the University of Delhi, she immediately set about learning everything she could about her daughter’s diagnosis, poring over literature and research.

“I’m not the type of person to give up, or be fatalistic about my circumstances, so I started reading a lot about what autism was and how I could make a difference,” said Lather.

While her frustrations were plentiful, she saw her daughter improve through applied behavioral analytic therapy. After four years of hard work with Lather and her therapist, her daughter could finally speak, and Lather finally knew what she wanted to do.

At the time, Lather was working in an organizational psychology position at Yamaha Motors India, optimizing workplace efficiency and satisfaction, but she pivoted her career after the challenging autism diagnosis sparked her real passion. Lather is now a graduate student in ASU's Department of Psychology Master of Science in applied behavior analysis program.

It is estimated that 1 in every 160 children worldwide is on the autism spectrum, with diagnoses doubling from 1996 to 2007 in the United States. However, in India, rates are significantly underdiagnosed, with only 1 in 435 children reported on the spectrum. Additionally, autism wasn’t classified as a disability in India until 2016.

“Applied behavior therapy is a well-documented science in being effective in helping individuals with behavioral and developmental issues, and it is something that is not well known in India. I knew that this was my opportunity to make a tangible difference in the lives of so many families like mine,” said Lather.

Lather decided she needed to find a program that would give her access to both training and resources to make an impact. She chose ASU specifically because of its 92%-plus passing rate on the Behavior Analyst Certification Board examination and the 1,500 hours required practicum experience.

“The hands-on experiential learning component is the icing on the cake; it not only helps us to translate what we do in the classroom, but it also makes us familiar to the problems we will face when we are professionals in the field,” said Lather.

The ASU program has doubled in enrollment size over the last three years and recently expanded into a virtual synchronous learning model to provide additional learning opportunities for students outside the Phoenix Metro area.

“We’ve had great success expanding this program to really serve not only our local community but communities across the nation” said Don Stenhoff, director of the program. “Students like Lather typify the important desire to improve and help our most vulnerable communities.”

Lather is a therapist-in-training at the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) and could not be happier. SARRC is an internationally recognized nonprofit agency that provides evidence-based services and training to build inclusive communities for individuals with autism and their families.

“My daughter has been a driving force for me taking this program. (Because of) the ups and downs that we’ve experienced, I wanted to equip myself with the skills to help my child and others like her. Also, there is a scarcity of services that cater to young adults on the spectrum – this is why I specifically chose to work with SARRC,” said Lather.

One of the things that stuck with Lather most was a quote from Stenhoff: “We live in a broken world, and we are tasked to fix a little bit of it.”

“The best part is, we get a chance to make a difference in the lives of so many people – people with physical or intellectual disabilities, optimizing people in the organizational level or even adjusting animal behavior,” said Lather.

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