MARYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ A new course at Maryville College is pairing students with autistic children.

WATE-TV ( reports the pilot project, which began this semester, is a cooperative effort between Maryville College, Cherokee Health Systems and the University of Tennessee. Officials say students work with autistic children on a regular basis to reinforce skills such as behavior, communication and language.

Parents Joel and Lucy Creel, who have 4-year-old twins involved in the program, say it has benefitted their children.

“We couldn’t have been happier to get a student that was involved in neuroscience and wanting to see the perspective of real life autism,” said Lucy Creel.

“The biggest thing we’re looking for is as much as possible to give them social interaction and this actually does help,” her husband, Joel Creel, said.

Student Courtney Bowers works with the twins and says the program has helped her decide that she wants to focus on a career in speech and language pathology.

“I knew I wanted to work with children with autism, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity I wanted to do that,” she said. “And by working with the children and observing their therapies, it really allowed me to hone in on speech and language.”

The project also includes classroom instruction and hours of training under Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Ariane Shrater.

“A lot of students want this experience. They want that extra training to be able to work with the special population,” Shrater said. “And I’ve also seen the enthusiasm from the community side. There’s a real need and also to potentially expand it to meet other needs as well.”

Maryville College facilitates the program with help from Cherokee Health Systems, which helps identify families who would benefit from it, and the University of Tennessee, which provides help with speech and language therapy.