Heller Profiles

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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Cariann Harsh

USA • Director, Autism Division, Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services

MBA '04

Citizen Leaders Advocating for People with Intellectual Disabilities

Cariann Harsh built a fully functioning state autism division from scratch

The Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services recruited Cariann Harsh while she was still a Heller student. Their mission for her was to build a fully functioning autism division from scratch. In a little over eight years, she’s done just that. “Autism has shifted,” Harsh says. “This wave of kids isn’t just a wave. Autistic kids are here to stay. The issue now is: How do we support all these kids who all look slightly different?”

Under Harsh’s leadership, the Autism Division connects families to advocacy centers that offer community-based services for children and families. She oversees a $4.6 million budget for the program. “The baseline of skills I got at Heller really prepared me for this role,” she says. “After Heller, I hit the ground and felt like I had all the tools in my toolkit that I needed. After eight years, I realize that I still use the skills every day.”

For three years, Harsh collaborated with Walter Leutz, PhD ’81, and Marji Erickson Warfield, PhD ’91, to evaluate the division’s waiver program. The team submitted two journal articles based on the project. “My Heller experience shaped where I am today,” Harsh says. “I’m in a leadership position in state government because of Heller. And I’m making the world a little better for families with children with autism.”

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