Interest in families led to teaching, autism research

| August 3, 2012 | 1 Comment


By Suzan Filipek

Some women really can have it all.

“I juggle five or six different jobs,” Jan Blacher said last month via telephone from Cape Cod.

She had planned to be a lawyer. After all, she comes from a family of them. But all bets were off after she majored in psychology at Brown University.

“From the time I did my senior honors thesis I was hooked… I’ve had an abiding interest in families and children, both typical children and those with autism or intellectual disability.”

She would grow to know hundreds of families in her work as founding director of SEARCH (Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community, Hope) family autism resource center.

At the UC Riverside site she has spent “three decades of research with families, and… clinical experience in educational treatment and autism.”

She has reached the highest level as a “Distinguished Professor” in UCR’s graduate school of education, and she is confident her students and ongoing research will make inroads in the next decade.

“They represent the best and the brightest doctoral students who will lead the field in research, teaching, assessment, and policy related to autism.”

You can also add spokesman to her job titles.


As chair of the Inland Empire Autism Regional Task Force, Blacher recently testified before the state senate on fair and equal access to services for autism spectrum disorders.

Autism has grown from a rare disorder affecting 1 in 2,500 children to today’s 1 in 150, she says.

Among her findings “Latino families experience autism differently from Anglo families, and they certainly receive services differently—often fewer of them.”

But poor, single Latino mothers of autistic children often feel more positive impacts, have more familial support and experience less stress than their better-educated Anglo counterparts, she adds.

While a mother’s radar is often spot on, a woman of lower-economic means is less aware of what little help is available to them.

Yet, early intervention is crucial, much earlier than recently thought.

If children are diagnosed and treatment starts in their first year of life, they stand a good chance of not needing social services down the road, says Blacher, who has a Ph.D. in special education and developmental psychology.

She runs two federally-funded projects: “Smooth Sailing” studies successful transition in the early school years for children with autism.

In the “Collaborative Family Study,” in its 15th year, collaborators include her husband of 27 years, Bruce Baker, a Distinguished Professor of psychology and chair at UCLA. They study why children and adolescents with mental retardation are at heightened risk for mental disorder.

She has also found an outlet for her legal bent as consultant in “right-to-education” lawsuits and contested issues in autism.

A board member of the LA Leadership Academy (LALA) the past five years, she advises educational policy and aspects of the program that pertain to learning and social differences at the K-12 charter school, which has a focus on social justice.

She has also been a consultant and faculty advisor at UC Riverside to Best Buddies, an arm of Special Olympics.


A resident of Windsor Square since 1987, she “wouldn’t live anywhere else… except in the summer when we spend working vacations in Maine.”

She supports the Harwich Conservation Trust, to preserve lands and native habitats from development, and finds time for tennis, yoga, walks on the beach and bakes a mean dessert.

Her eldest son Alexander recently graduated from her alma mater, Brown University, and works at a business consulting firm. Her younger son, Spencer, is headed to UC Santa Barbara in the fall.

“Academics are socialized to ‘publish or perish’ but my best publications were my two children,” says the proud mom.

“I’ve been able to work and excel in an area I care a lot about and still raise a family… Better yet, I have had the opportunity to work with my husband for the past 14 years and still consider him my best friend (or BFF).”

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Category: People

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