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WKU grad using China experience to continue research on autism

WKU graduate Rachel Reetzke is ready to take the next step along her path to a career in autism communication science research and to help children and families in China.

“My experience working with the parents and children in China has greatly motivated me to pursue doctoral studies in order to solve communication problems that are present in children on the autism spectrum,” said Reetzke, who spent the past year in Guangzhou as part of a Fulbright grant. “The parents in China are some of the most compassionate parents I have had the opportunity to work with throughout my studies. They are dedicated to helping their children and they are hungry for answers.”


Rachel Reetzke

In September, Reetzke, a 2010 graduate from Franklin, will pursue a combined master’s and doctoral program in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Texas-Austin. Through the combined MA/Ph.D., Reetzke will have the opportunity to concurrently receive certification as a speech therapist, as she works toward a Ph.D. focused on the language processing of monolingual and bilingual children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other related developmental disabilities.

Reetzke received her bachelor’s degree in communication disorders at WKU’s College of Health and Human Services and worked in the Kelly Autism Program.

“Working at the Kelly Autism Program provided me with a wealth of knowledge,” she said. “I learned that autism isn’t merely a developmental disability or neurological disorder, but that children and students on the autism spectrum are peers and friends with hobbies, goals and ambitions, not that different from my own. My experience at KAP inspired me to become an advocate for my friends.”

As a student in WKU’s Honors College and the Chinese Language Flagship program, she took advantage of study abroad and national scholarship opportunities to visit China and learn more about the language and culture.

On her first visit to China in 2009 through the China Field Studies Program offered by the Honors College, Reetzke observed children on the autism spectrum and became compelled to learn the Chinese language to continue effective research in China, advocate for children’s needs and ultimately improve mutual exchange of knowledge with Chinese colleagues. “I returned to the States and immediately took advantage of the Chinese Language Flagship Program at WKU. This program greatly accelerated my Mandarin language skills,” she said.

After receiving a Critical Language Scholarship to Beijing in summer 2010, she decided to pursue the Fulbright grant for the 2011-12 academic year.  In 2010-11, she spent an academic year at the University of Cambridge as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.

“I initially became intrigued by the unknowns of autism, specifically those concerning the speech and communication of individuals on the spectrum,” she said.

During her year in Guangzhou, a city of nearly 13 million people in southern China, Reetzke’s primary research project at the Third Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-Sen University was to assist in validating the Chinese Autism Diagnostic Scale (CADS), a standardized test designed specifically for the Chinese population with consideration of their unique cultural and linguistic background. The scale, once validated, will be used to diagnose autism in China.

Reetzke worked under the guidance of Dr. Zou Xiaobing, one of China’s top autism researchers. She also had an opportunity to attend Autism Speaks’ Autism Research Collaboration Development Conference last November in Shanghai where she met other professors and researchers from around the world.

“My Fulbright experience stretched far beyond China,” she said.

Reetzke also conducted an independent study observing the effects of bilingualism on the  socio-pragmatic abilities of children with autism spectrum disorder. She is collaborating with Dr. Napoleon Katsos, her advisor from Cambridge University’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, on this study. Reetzke is analyzing that data this summer and expects to publish her findings this winter.

During her Fulbright year, Reetzke also developed a peer mentorship pilot program for adolescents and young adults with developmental disabilities living in Guangzhou. For this project she collaborated with two non-government organizations: YangAi Parent Club and Guangzhou Huiling, and worked with these organizations to recruit Chinese university student volunteers to establish mutually beneficial one-to-one peer friendships with teenagers living with developmental disabilities. To date, through generous donations from the American Charity Group of Guangzhou, 10 matched pairs had the opportunity to participate in three outings in Guangzhou. Reetzke is working on grants to sustain the program.

In addition to research and service projects, Reetzke became involved with the Christian community in Guangzhou and also led an English language seminar at the Guangzhou Cana School where her topics focused on discussing the latest autism research findings and answering questions regarding the American culture.

“We really grew together and learned from each other through the English Seminar,” she said. “My colleagues called me ‘teacher’ but I told them we were peers.”

That connection gave Reetzke “a new sense of home and what home is. Home isn’t a place. It’s the people and community you love.”

For Reetzke, “home was now Guangzhou, China.”

As she begins her graduate work under the supervision of Dr. Li Sheng at the University of Texas-Austin, Reetzke will continue to cultivate those connections with the Guangzhou community, continue collaborative research with her advisor in China and continue taking Chinese language courses.

In addition to becoming a university faculty member and researcher, Reetzke’s goals include continuing to introduce speech therapy into the Chinese culture; continuing her advocacy, research and peer mentorship projects in China; and facilitating research collaborations to bring her Chinese colleagues to America and take her new students and research colleagues to China.

“We’re the next generation that’s going to carry this type of research forward,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to advance collaborative research.”

About the Fulbright and Critical Language Scholarship Programs:

The Fulbright Program is designed to increase mutual understanding between people of the U.S. and other countries through educational exchange. The U.S. Student Program allows approximately 1600 recent university graduates to pursue 8-12 months of research, study, or teaching English in approximately 140 countries around the world. The campus deadline for Fulbright applications is Sept. 17, 2012.

The Critical Language Scholarship Program aims to increase the number of Americans studying and mastering critical need foreign languages including Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Japanese, and Korean. The program funds 8 to 10 weeks of intensive group-based language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences. The deadline for 2013 CLS programs is mid-November (date TBA).

The Office of Scholar Development welcomes the opportunity to work with students interested in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, Critical Language Scholarship Program, and other similar opportunities. Contact: Dr. Melinda Grimsley-Smith, (270) 745-5043.

About the Chinese Flagship Program:

WKU’s federally funded Chinese Flagship Pilot Program is actively redefining the paradigm in language education.  The program is designed to bring talented students who start with no knowledge of Chinese up to the Superior level (ACTFL scale) of proficiency by the time they graduate from college by integrating Chinese language instruction at every stage of the undergraduate educational path and incorporating a capstone year at Nanjing University and working in a professional internship.  Contact: Melinda Edgerton, (270) 745-5043.

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