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Interdisciplinary Center for Autism Services Trains Next Generation While Helping Area K-12 Students and Families

by Jeanette Grider on 10/30/2019
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A new center at Saint Louis University is reaching across multiple disciplines to provide families of K-12 children experiencing signs of autism with comprehensive evaluation reports and serve as a liaison to access therapies and interventions.

The Interdisciplinary Center for Autism Services, which opened in July 2019, is also a teaching center and provides opportunities for graduate students to be involved with the assessment process under the direction and guidance of faculty members from their specific disciplines.

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Front row (from left): Mary Borders, Erin Ammendola, Diane Richter, Ph.D.,  Noemi Pinelo.  Back row (from left):  Kristen Haeberlein,  Annie Garner,  Ph.D.,  Robin Murphy, Laurel Giacone, Mary Jo Davenport, Ph.D., Kellisa Fiala,  Debra Rybski, Ph.D. Photo by Jeff Ackels

Diane Richter, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor and director of the Center, says accurate assessment of children with autism and autism spectrum disorders is crucial to determining the best path for therapies and intervention.

“Through an interdisciplinary team approach the Center brings together expertise from psychology, communication sciences and disorders, special education, occupational therapy, physical therapy and social work (applied behavioral analysis) to provide those high- quality assessments for families,” Richter said.

Richter also stressed the importance of providing graduate students valuable clinical experience as they prepare for the future careers.

“Our graduate students have been such a great asset to the team and the families we serve under the guidance of their faculty mentors,” Richter added. “It has been amazing to observe their compassion to serve others while expanding their skill set as a part of an interdisciplinary team.”

The students also emphasized the value of their experiences.

“I believe each member of our team brings something special to the assessment process, with the hope that clients and their families will benefit from this multidisciplinary experience,” said Kristen Haeberlein.

Laurel Giacone, a first-year student in the Masters of Social Work-ABA program, says she was unsure of what to expect but has found the experience invaluable.

“I’ve become a part of an important new endeavor in the field of autism within the St. Louis area, participating in the evaluation of clinic clients and using observation to apply behavior analytic principles to client behavior,” said Giacone.

“Being part of the evaluation team has been eye-opening,” Giancone added. “The interdisciplinary nature of the clinic has not only taught me how to work with other disciplines to achieve one common goal for the good of the client, but also important aspects, at first glance unrelated to the field of behavior analysis, of working with clients who could have diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Psychology graduate student Kristen Haeberlein says working at SLU’s Autism Center has been rewarding for both her clinical training and consultation skills.

“It has been enjoyable to learn from and work with disciplines outside of my professional domain, particularly in exploring alternate theories and conceptualizations for our clients,” Haeberlein said.  “I believe each member of our team brings something special to the assessment process, with the hope that clients and their families will benefit from this multidisciplinary experience.”

Those sentiments also reflected the experience of Erin Ammendola, a graduate student in the Department of Communication and Sciences and Disorders.

"Being a part of the SLU Interdisciplinary Center for Autism Services has exceeded all of my expectations for a clinical placement this semester,” Ammendola said. “Throughout my time at the clinic I have grown as a clinician and gained invaluable knowledge from multiple disciplines."

The program, which plans to expand during the Spring semester, was initiated by retired professor Nikki Murdick, Ph.D., and developed by Richter through the support of the SLU Grow Grant.

Interdisciplinary Center for Autism Services

For detailed information or to schedule an appointment, visit the Center’s website or contact the Center at 314-977-5377 or slucenterforautism@slu.edu.