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Autism Clinic: Promises Continuity and Convenience to Local Families

By: Christine Borkowski
Posted: February 22, 2012

PHOTO: OTCES CLinicThe Inter-Professional Autism Clinic is located at the OTCES building at 131 E. Grace Street, Harrisonburg, Va.Autism may no longer be called a rare disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated average of 1 in 110 children in America has some type of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The Inter-Professional Autism Clinic (IPAC) is a collaborative effort between several JMU departments that helps families of children with autism living in the Shenandoah Valley. The IPAC clinical team’s job is to further assess and provide interventions for children ages 3 to 5 with ASD or suspected ASD.

IPAC brought together three JMU faculty members from different subject areas. Each are licensed professionals in their respective fields, and they work with students on both undergraduate and graduate levels. IPAC provides a live, hands-on representation of the work the students may encounter in the future.

With positive synergy among the group and years of planning under their belts, the clinic's creators aim to improve the lives of Valley children and families living with autism.

Does Autism Have a Cure?

PHOTO: Child in sandbox1 in 110 children in America has some type of Autism Spectrum Disorder."There is no cure for autism, but there are plenty of successful treatments,” Marsha Powell explained. Powell is a clinical instructor with JMU speech and language pathology as well as a Ph.D. candidate in communication sciences and disorders (CSD).

Elizabeth Richardson is a full-time JMU occupational therapy (OT) faculty member as well as the Director of OT Clinical Education Services. She mentioned, “It’s hard to find a cure for something when we don’t know what the causes of autism are. The focus has been on improving the treatments to address the multidimensional challenges that are a result of having that [autism] diagnosis.”

Dr. Trevor Stokes is the Director of JMU’s Alvin V. Baird Attention and Learning Disabilities Center and a graduate psychology professor. He said, “So many years ago there wasn’t a cure [for autism], but now we are closer because there is a lot of intervention and improvement we can see.”

Now, autism is diagnosed more often. Boys are four times more likely to develop an ASD than girls, according to the CDC. Stokes elaborated, “In the last 20 years or so, the development of knowledge and understanding of effective techniques in intervention has just expanded incredibly. The improvement in the quality and effectiveness of treatments has been substantial.” The staff learns and embraces new developments on the subject of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Three Approaches Come Together for a Common Goal

“It's the goal of delivering three treatments at the same time rather than doing it in parallel or serially that truly brings our disciplines together in a productive merge. That’s the excitement and challenge of what we're doing,” according to Stokes.

Richardson, OT graduates and undergraduates focus on developing and correcting motor skills, self-care, play and sensory processing in the study of OT. Real life examples include social interactions, getting dressed, accepting different types of foods, moving from one activity to the other, and transition skills.

Powell and her CSD students focus on various forms of communication in the child with autism. “My focus is on improving communication, and we want the individual to be able to express their wants and needs,” Powell explained, “but sometimes we have to use alternative communication systems, such as a picture exchange, in order to introduce them to the concept of what communication actually is.”

Stokes and his psychology students’ main study areas are in applied behavioral analysis (or ABA) and the relationship between social interaction & psychology— or “psychosocial” development. According to Autism Speaks, the largest autism science and advocacy organization, ABA helps the autism-diagnosed child to develop basic skills such as listening, looking, imitating, reading, talking, as well as learning to take the perspective of others.

Throughout the treatment, the faculty and students switch who takes the lead, depending on the area of focus.

“The speech therapist, or the person who is doing the ABA focus, might take the lead and work on increasing eye contact, increasing verbal output, getting the child to follow directions, and I might be working on body positioning during that time,” Richardson explained from the OT point-of-view, “the interaction is primarily between the child and either the speech therapist, the psychologist or psychology student.”

Benefits for Local Families Touched by Autism

“The families really like going to one place. There is also continuity in what the child is being exposed to, which is something the parents really appreciate,” Richardson indicated, “[the children diagnosed with autism] are sometimes getting multiple services. The child sometimes gets confused. The parents get overwhelmed.”

Two popular words among the IPAC community are “continuity” and “convenience.” The continuity comes from the facilities and tools both the OTCES program and the IPAC program use; both programs have the E. Grace St. facility and “people resources,” including students and professionals in multiple subject areas.

 The autism clinic is also convenient because it is a one-stop shop with licensed professionals in occupational therapy (OT), in clinical psychology and applied behavior analysis (ABA), and in communication sciences and disorders (CSD). Stokes explained, “If comprehensive treatment is what's best, then we can deliver three treatments at the same time. The productivity of that work and the benefit for the children and the families is going to be much greater.”

According to the staff, the parents and children go to a session together and learn to interact in positive ways with one another. Siblings may also be involved in a living room setting involving toys and play. From there, the staff and students can let the parents know which teaching and behavior management techniques work best with their child.

Benefits for JMU Students Involved with IPAC

IPAC benefits not only the children and families that frequent the facility, but gives JMU students real-life field experience. Powell, Richardson & Stokes work with both undergraduate and graduate students. What they see and learn at IPAC could contribute to their studies and lives in a positive way.

Abby Godfrey is a first-year graduate student studying communication sciences and disorders at JMU. She said about inter-professional approach, “It’s really interesting to see how a speech therapist could see something that another [professional] wouldn’t see; then they could explain it to one another or point out something that someone else wouldn’t have noticed.” 

Not only does the clinic put all three disciplines together, but it creates awareness about what others study every day. Sarah Vasquez is a second-year graduate student in behavioral psychology. Her interests include autism, behavioral neuroscience, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She explained, “We all have this idea of what speech does with OT, speech pathology and ABA, so working together has really educated me in what other disciplines have worked at.”

To first-year graduate psychology student Alicia Faller, it is “not just getting feedback from one another but trying to work cohesively.” Faller, studying ABA and clinical psychology on a graduate level, works with IPAC as well as Harrisonburg Public Schools. She said, “From the assessment to formatting the website, it’s not just about working together but trying to apply all different concentrations at the same time.”

For all involved, working with IPAC can be a rewarding educational experience. Licensed professionals and supervised JMU students take the steps to make sure that the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders are minimized.

About the Inter-Professional Autism Clinic: The James Madison University Inter-Professional Autism Clinic (IPAC) is a program operated through the Alvin V. Baird Attention and Learning Disabilities Center (Baird Center) at the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services (IIHHS).

The Inter-Professional Autism Clinic provides in-depth assessment and multi-disciplinary intervention for children ages 3-5 years old with Autism or suspected Autism. The curriculum reflects an approach that merges intervention methods from these disciplines and can be individualized to meet each child’s unique needs. It will include opportunities for participation in individual as well as small and large group activities that are facilitated through a collaborative approach.

For more information:
Kathy Barret
Baird Center
Email: barretkw@jmu.edu
Telephone: 540-568-7931