Donald Oswald, director of diagnostics and research at Commonwealth Autism Service in Richmond, Virginia, is EMU's Alumnus of the Year for 2014. Under Oswald's leadership, the clinic has become a model in the Mid-Atlantic as a training site for interdisciplinary teams that wish to provide an assessment for children who might be diagnosed with autism. (Photo by Steven Stauffer)

Alumnus of the Year: Donald Oswald, pioneer in helping children with autism

When Donald Oswald ’75 accepted his first teaching job after graduating from college, he also discovered a field of study that defines his academic and professional career.

“The opportunity to work with children with autism was not the result of a deliberate plan or any previous experience with autism,” says Oswald. “Grafton School in Berryville, Virginia, was just beginning the program for students with autism and I was fascinated by the children and intrigued by the opportunity to work with them individually.”

Oswald’s fascination with the emerging field of autism diagnosis, combined with the strong foundation he received as a psychology major at EMU, helped launch his productive career.

Raised on a Nebraska farm, Oswald chose Hesston College (Kansas) for his first two years of college. EMU’s innovative psychology department, led by John Hess, attracted him for his junior and senior years. A young Galen Lehman had just started his long teaching tenure. And in one psychology class, Oswald met Jean Miller, the woman who became his wife.

Of his non-psychology professors, Oswald names Willard Swartley as “perhaps the most memorable. His Old Testament course made a lasting impression because of his commitment to scholarly integrity.”

Within the newly built Hartzler Library, Oswald was introduced to scholarly research first-hand. “I recall the pleasure I got from spending whole days in the library tracking down sources, and reading and integrating the material I found. I no longer remember the topic, but the process made a real impression and the experience whetted my appetite for independent research.”

Whetted may be an understatement. Oswald’s 19-page curriculum vitae lists more than 12 pages of academic articles, book reviews/editorials/abstracts, books/chapters, grant-related products, and workshop presentations which he authored, co-authored or produced.

After graduating magna cum laude in 1975, Oswald received a master’s in education in school psychology from James Madison University in 1981. Two degrees from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University followed: master of science in psychology in 1987 and doctor of philosophy in psychology in 1989.

Among his peers, Oswald is known for his willingness to share knowledge and research. He is director of diagnostics and research at Commonwealth Autism Service in Richmond, Virginia.

Of his work there, Oswald says, “About 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to develop an interdisciplinary diagnostic assessment clinic for young children for whom there was a question of a diagnosis of autism. The clinic was established on the principles of using the best evidence-based diagnostic tools available, working together collaboratively across disciplines, and actively seeking to integrate parents as essential and equal partners in the process.”

He has served as director of the clinic ever since, guiding it to its mid-Atlantic status as a model training site for interdisciplinary teams that wish to provide similar diagnostic services.

Oswald is also clinical professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s department of psychiatry, mentoring psychologists-in-training.

His wife, Jean ’74, has just retired from her position as director of a preschool where she spent 20 years. Oswald is active at First Mennonite Church of Richmond, leading music and worship. His hobbies are reading, bicycling, and singing.

Music unites Oswald’s EMU years with his present life, recalling that he sang in the touring choir under Lowell Byler. “I still sing with a community chorus, One Voice Chorus. Our mission is to foster harmony between people of African-American and European-American descent.”

Oswald will be honored with the Alumnus of the Year award during Homecoming and Family Weekend 2014 at EMU, Oct. 10-12. Celebrations include: class reunions for years ending in “4″ and “9″; community picnic on Saturday, Oct. 11, for all members of the EMU community; sporting events; and more!
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