OAR’s 18th birthday this month evokes a flood of memories. The first is one of three men, Jim Sack, Mike Maloney, and me, meeting in a bar in Baltimore in January 2002. OAR had just been legally established, and Jim and Mike drove up from Washington to pitch OAR and recruit me to become the chairman of its Scientific Council. I didn’t need any drinks to immediately buy into OAR’s mission and vision. Nonetheless, I enjoyed several to celebrate joining OAR and accepting the challenge to help create a science-based autism research organization that would “apply science to the challenges of autism.” Fast forward 18 years and I’m amazed at all that we have accomplished. Here are just a few reflections on OAR, then and now.
Then. In September 2002, we published our first request for proposals, the announcement inviting researchers to apply for grants. Despite a very short deadline, we received 20 proposals. In December, we awarded our first two grants totaling $60,000. One focused on the effects of fluency in skill acquisition and retention for children with autism; the other sought to explore the potential of computer-enhanced programs to teach social communications in the context of activity schedules.
Now. Just last month, the Scientific Council recommended seven projects, which the Board of Directors approved for funding totaling $275,000 from an original field of 152 research proposals. These grants take OAR past the $4 million mark in research funded since 2002. What strikes me most is how we have evolved and sharpened our focus on even more complex issues relative to autism and individuals with autism extending even to contemporary social change today.
Then. At the same time that we launched our first Applied Research Competition, we were just months away from publishing our first guidebook, Life Journey Through Autism: A Parent’s Guide to Research. On February 1, 2003, we delivered it to the autism community.
Now. A Parent’s Guide to Research has stood the test of time with more than 15,000 copies distributed. In addition, OAR has since published eight more guides in the Life Journey Through Autism series, some for parents, others for teachers, and even a unique resource for military families impacted by autism. What I have loved about OAR from the start is its willingness to take on challenging topics. I also admire its practice of offering its whole array of resources to parents and families at no cost. We don’t want any financial barrier to keep a parent or individual with autism from accessing information that they can use.
Then. In 2003, we proudly held OAR’s first Applied Research and Intervention Conference in Arlington, Va., supported by a grant from the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism. We held the conference every year through 2010, receiving excellent reviews throughout. In 2011, in an effort to expand OAR’s reach and support the community more broadly, we created a Conference-on-the-Road format, partnering with other autism organizations that held conferences around the United States, including Autism Society of Wisconsin, Autism NJ, Milestones (Cleveland, Ohio), OCALI (Columbus, Ohio), and Continuing Trends in Autism (Boston, Ma.).
Now. Two years ago we ended the Conference-on the-Road program in favor of the OAR webinar series. The webinar series allows us to disseminate high-quality information to many families and practitioners, eliminating financial and physical barriers. We have held four webinars since April 2018 with registrations averaging 600 participants each.
What Lies Ahead
As I look to the next three to five years, I can readily predict we will surpass the $5 million mark in funded research and continue to produce new and updated resources on our established schedule. That is exciting! Even more exciting are those things OAR will do that I can’t see in my crystal ball. In 2002, I never envisioned we’d create unique resources, a website, and a Life Journey guide for military families. Who’d have imagined that an OAR intern and our first program director would create the “What’s Up with Nick?” booklet, a resource that has reached more than 125,000 children on four continents? Or that we would produce an online sex education resource for self-advocates as we did just this year?
So, as we celebrate 18 years of OAR and surpassing $4 million in research funding, I’m most proud of what OAR stands for: excellence in its research and resources with a focus on supporting individuals with autism and their families. I often re-state our mission as “Raise money. Fund research. Change lives.” To change lives, an organization like OAR needs to constantly challenge itself to “take the next objective” as Mike Maloney, OAR’s executive director and a Marine, might say.
In that regard, I am as just eager to step off with our Scientific Council, OAR’s Board, and its incredible staff and volunteers today as I was to sign up on 2002. Once again, no drinks required. On to the next hill!
Peter Gerhardt, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the EPIC School in Paramus, NJ. Dr. Gerhardt has more than 35 years’ experience utilizing the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis in support of adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders in educational, employment, residential and community-based settings. He has authored and co-authored articles and book chapters on the needs of adolescents and adults with ASD and has presented nationally and internationally on this topic. Dr. Gerhardt is the Founding Chairman of the Scientific Council for the Organization for Autism Research and currently Co-Chairs the Council with Dr. Joanne Gerenser. He is on numerous professional advisory boards including the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Dr. Gerhardt received his doctorate from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey’s Graduate School of Education.