Innovating for the next generation

Emma Shipley shares the priceless opportunities TU has offered her, what’s to come for her in TU’s autism studies doctoral program


woman sits at desk in Institute for Well-being
Photo by Lauren Castellana | Towson University

For speech-language pathologist (SLP) Emma Shipley '17, '19, Towson University always seemed like a natural choice for her college education. From obtaining her undergraduate and master’s degrees from TU to being one of the five in the all-woman cohort in TU’s new autism studies doctoral program, Shipley has found her educational home at TU.

But if anyone had told Shipley while studying for her master’s degree that she would be specializing in working with adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum, she wouldn’t have agreed. 

“It’s not at all where I expected to end up. It just wasn’t where I thought I was going to be, but it’s where it led me, and I love it. It’s very strange how the bricks get laid in front of you on this path where you’re so uncertain, and these doors just open for you,” she says.

As an SLP at TU’s Institute for Well-Being, Shipley supervises first-year speech pathology graduate students during their clinical internships in the Speech and Language Center, manages treatment and guides clinical decision-making for patients, and frequently works at the Hussman Center for Adults with Autism—all while juggling her doctoral work.

After specializing in speech pathology in TU’s speech-language pathology master’s program, Shipley had her light-bulb moment while teaching in a Carroll County public high school.

In language and literacy-based interventions with autistic students, they questioned why they had to do certain tasks or activities to fit in socially when that wasn’t who they were, and Shipley often felt like she couldn’t give a satisfying answer.

Within the neurodiversity movement, autistic advocates started speaking out about their experiences in therapies and the things professionals can do to better support autistic people, which resonated with Shipley and aligned with the feedback her students shared with her.

“I think I learned more from them than they did from me,” she says.

While planning where she would attend school for her doctorate, Shipley’s colleague turned mentor, Kelly Coburn, Ph.D., put a bug in Shipley’s ear that the autism studies doctoral program was on its way to becoming a reality at TU.

It didn’t take much for Shipley to choose TU again. Afterall, not only is she a two-time TU graduate, but her mother and father met at TU while studying mass communication.

Her program is focused on integrative learning beyond the classroom. The cohort is in the field interacting with and working alongside autistic people with the goal of amplifying their voices and priorities within professional fields.

Inaugural graduate program director of the Autism Studies doctoral program, Kaitlyn Wilson, Ph.D., says, “The program is designed to provide students with the tools they need to develop robust research that is meaningful to their field. By learning in an interdisciplinary format, they’re growing in their ability to view and research autism from multiple angles, which will enhance their future contributions to the field.”

The program is currently interdisciplinary with the College of Education and the College of Liberal Arts with collaborations across additional colleges burgeoning.

TU dean of the College of Health Professions, Lisa Plowfield Ph.D., shares, “The Autism Studies doctoral program is paving the way for the next generation of professionals and researchers in the autism field through an interprofessional education collaboration. I value our partners across the university who have shared faculty and expertise to create a truly interdisciplinary program for our students. We are excited to see where the first cohort’s research takes them, and how it will impact the future of this field and the lives of people in the TU community and beyond.”

Cohort members can take courses across all colleges to expand their views and are grateful to have tuition and scholarship support to fund their full-time program. The funding covers professional development and training courses, including the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition assessment, a training course that may not have been accessible to most without the support of the department.

Coburn says of Shipley, “Emma is an outstanding student whose dedication to TU and our community is admirable. I’m looking forward to the results of her upcoming research.”

Shipley’s research interests lie in applied improvisational theater within communication therapy to build communicative skill and confidence. As Shipley works toward her degree, she will be researching whether improv-based programs are a viable, flexible method for improving a breadth of communication in a neurodiversity-affirming way.

Her goal is to become a professor, to educate the next generation of the clinical field of speech-language pathologists. It is important to her as an educator and supervisor to teach her students how to hold space for neurodivergent individuals, multimodal communicators, and realize communication therapy is not “one size fits all.”

"I tell my students that I try to be the supervisor that I wanted in my clinical internships," she says. "Being able to implement and innovate what supervision looks like for our students and teach them from a real-world perspective is so rewarding to me."