Person-Centered and Community-Based: An Autism Awareness Month Conversation

Professor Bill Therrien and Ethan Long, executive director of the Virginia Institute of Autism, discuss community partnerships and strengths-based services for Autism Awareness Month.

Each year, April marks National Autism Awareness Month. This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released an updated report on autism prevalence, stating that about one in 59 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder by age 8 in 2014, a 15% increase over 2012. Despite its growing prevalence, critical questions remain about what causes autism and how to provide adequate support to those who need it.

Bill Therrien is professor of Special Education at the Curry School, and Ethan Long is the executive director of the Virginia Institute of Autism (VIA), a local nonprofit that offers education, outreach and adult services for individuals with autism and their families in the Charlottesville and surrounding communities. To close out Autism Awareness Month, Therrien and Long got together for a conversation about research, innovation in autism education, and the evidence-based programs and resources that are available in our community. Read a few highlights below or watch the full video above.

On the need for cohesive services

Therrien spoke to how the range of available services has increased dramatically with the rise in autism diagnoses. “In the past, individuals would be given a diagnosis of autism, and they’d basically be given a piece of paper, and they’d have to go out and look for services,” he said.

However, despite improvements in recent years, services often aren’t as streamlined as they could be. “I think because the prevalence rate of autism occurred so quickly, and there was such a big rush to provide services, we see a lot of things that are fragmented as far as services in the community, education from universities, and needing some kind of cohesive movement around that,” he continued. “Curry really is taking that seriously. We want to work with community partners in order to address individuals with autism and their families in a comprehensive way.”

“We’re working with VIA and others in the community,” he continued, “and we’re also becoming more cohesive within UVA – from developmental pediatrics to clinical psychology to speech pathology to special education – with the idea of providing a cohesive group of services and assessments for individual families.”

Long, who mentioned that VIA was founded by parents who couldn’t find the services they needed, agreed that initiatives like Autism Awareness Month are helping us move in the right direction. “There’s been a whole lot of autism awareness going on in the Charlottesville community, which is a great thing,” he said. “Ultimately, there are a lot of families who have needs, and we want to help meet those needs.”

On the Curry-VIA partnership

Both Therrien and Long agreed that a strong partnership between the Curry School and VIA opens up many opportunities – for students, staff and faculty at both organizations, as well as for individuals and families affected by autism in the local community.

Therrien said that the applied experience VIA can provide for Curry students is valuable for all teachers in training, not just those studying special education. “Typically, when you think about people who work with individuals with autism, you think about special education teachers,” he said. “But the reality is that all teachers are going to have individuals with autism, so they all need those experiences.”

From the VIA perspective, Long agreed that the partnership benefits everyone involved. “Teachers, behavior analysts, speech-language pathologists – we can have a whole host of folks who can … really cut their teeth and learn some of the art and the clinical work and the practice of teaching in our classrooms and outpatient programs,” he said. “It’s a tremendous partnership and it’s only going to get much more exciting as we move forward.”

“What excites me the most with this partnership is that we both bring different strengths to the table,” Therrien added. “And the ultimate goal is to conduct research and provide services to families and their children that can help make sure that they reach their potential.”

On strengths-based training and services

For both students and practitioners working with individuals with autism and their families, both Therrien and Long stated the importance of focusing on strengths instead of deficits.

“[Individuals with autism] bring a lot of strengths to their situations and families as well, and we need to make sure that they can achieve their potential,” said Therrien.

“Part of our mission and our vision is we help people overcome the challenges of autism,” said Long. “Not everyone with autism has a challenge, and different folks have different challenges. That really allows us to focus on strengths. We’re thinking about a continuum of services that really meets a continuum of needs.”

On local programs and services available now

Therrien and Long also discussed several examples of services and programs that are available to local families, such as the Jump Start Clinic: an intensive, 6-week training course designed to bridge the gap for families with a recent autism diagnosis who are waiting for services. The clinic is held in the Curry School’s Sheila Johnson Center, and involves Curry students and faculty.

“It really is very therapeutic in the sense that you have a group of parents that are going through a shared experience,” said Long. “It’s one of those things where that partnership is really helping to make it possible.”

As the Curry School gets more involved in autism work, Therrien said he’s optimistic about the future. “We’re really going to be ramping up our work in the community in the area of autism, and our goal is going to be that person-centered, community-based approach that we know is very important,” he said. “When research is done at its best, it’s in an applied situation helping kids. That’s really what a college of education does, and that’s certainly what is done at Curry.”