L-R Top: Pamela Clark, Jason Winburn, Stephanie Davidowitz, Katharine Mendivil, Dr. Emily Ochi, Dr. Mary Lawlor, Gretchen Bazela. L-R Bottom: Julie Peterson, Jennifer Kovacs and Monica Stephen.

The Help Group – USC Occupational Science Initiative has announced its next project to develop opportunities for advancing community-based social participation for children with autism and autism spectrum disorders.

Under the direction of Dr. Mary Lawlor, Associate Chair of Research and Professor at the University of Southern California’s Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, this pilot program will implement a science and social participation curriculum in classrooms at The Help Group’s Village Glen School and during outings at the California Science Center, an experiential science museum located in Exposition Park adjacent to the USC University Park Campus in Los Angeles.

The science and social skills curriculum will be based upon the educational and therapeutic goals of students with autism and other special needs ages 7- to 8-years-old in the fourth through sixth grades. Lawlor will coordinate a team of USC occupational therapy faculty, graduate students and practitioners, in collaboration with Help Group educators and occupational therapy staff, to lead The Help Group students in a series of field trips to California Science Center throughout the spring months. These trips will be specifically structured to optimize the students’ social interactions in a museum setting, as well as to help them better access their respective grade-level science curricula.

“We are delighted to be collaborating with The Help Group and California Science Center in developing, implementing and appraising an innovative approach to learning through exploring new frontiers in science and enhancing social participation, both for students at USC and students at The Help Group,” Lawlor said.

This project is a replication of an original program designed by Dr. Ellen Cohn, Clinical Professor at the Department of Occupational Therapy at Boston University in collaboration with the Boston Public Schools and the Museum of Science in Boston. The program was designed to support students impacted by autism spectrum disorders engage in informal science learning, socially interact with each other and with educators, and feel included in a community setting.


Students will experience the Endeavor and other exciting exhibits

Assisting Lawlor will be USC’s Dr. Emily Ochi, assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy; Dr. Jesus Diaz, assistant research professor; Monica Stephens, Occupational Therapy Doctorate resident; and Dr. Jenny Kovacs, postdoctoral fellow. “Our graduate students at USC are excited by this remarkable opportunity to work directly with students at The Help Group to foster science learning and facilitate engagement and community participation through the field trips to the California Science Center,” Ochi said.

“It’s university partnerships, like this initiative with USC, that inform best practice methods in our classrooms and keeps us at the cutting edge of evidence-based interventions,” said Dr. Barbara Firestone. “We are proud to continue to expand this partnership with the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.”