UTPA seeking funding for autism center
Posted: 06/14/2006
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The University of Texas-Pan American's College of Education would like to become a "one stop shop" for families of children with autism by creating and operating a center that would focus on meeting their every need.

In order to open such a facility, UTPA's College of Education must obtain the necessary funding. Despite a previous failed attempt, educators are hoping to increase its chances of success this time around by collaborating with other University of Texas System institutions. The college is partnering with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the UTHSC's Regional Academic Health Centers in Edinburg and Harlingen to prepare and submit a federal grant proposal. The proposal is seeking $10 million - $2 million each year - over a period of five years from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the world's foremost medical research centers and a division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The college is also looking for funding from other sources including private donors.

UTPA diagnostician and assistant professor in the educational psychology department Dr. Cheryl Fielding (left) works with two-and-a-half-year-old Celina Wood during one of her sessions at the University.
The money will be used to open what educators propose to call the Center of Excellence in Autism Research and Interventions. It will be located inside the new College of Education building and provide a variety of services catering to the needs of children with autism. In addition to providing services to the community, it will focus on discovering the causes of autism with the goal of developing innovative new strategies for treating and preventing this condition.

"The Autism Center is a center that is going to work with the UT Health Science in San Antonio doing some basic science research, looking at genetic causes for autism and also looking at the different types of prototypes and subtypes of autism," said Dr. Terry Overton, professor of educational psychology.

The center will also serve to better prepare education diagnosticians, school psychologists and special education teachers to identify and teach children with autism - a developmental disability typically affecting the processing, integrating and organizing of information that significantly impacts communication, social interaction, functional skills, and educational performance.

According to Dr. Cheryl Fielding, UTPA diagnostician and assistant professor in the educational psychology department, their goal is to create a "one stop shop" environment where parents can have their child seen by all the necessary professionals in one day.

"We would like to have available a pediatrician, possibly a neurologist and gastrointestinal specialist, educational personnel such as an educational diagnostician and school psychologist, speech language therapist, occupational therapist and physical therapist. This type of assessment is currently being done in other clinics in the state and it is of tremendous benefit to parents," Fielding said. "Parents won't need to leave the Valley to feel they've received the best possible evaluation and intervention treatment plan."

Currently, some families travel to San Antonio, Austin or other cities outside the Valley for treatment. Others choose to seek help from the limited services available locally, often from public schools, which may only offer assistance two or three days a week or in some cases only once a month. UTPA offers some assistance as well but sees only a few clients a week due to lack of funding.

Claudia Wood said she's grateful to the University for the time the diagnosticians and psychologists have spent working with her autistic daughter Celina. Cameras installed at UTPA's Counseling and Assessment Preparation Clinic have monitored the two-and-a-half-year-old's progress since her first visit in February. Wood said she has seen a tremendous improvement in her little girl's behavior.

"The service the University has given to my daughter has been an absolute godsend. Honestly, we feel that with the progress that our child has made, we just believe that every child in the Rio Grande Valley should have access to something so inspiring and so hopeful. With our daughter, we've just seen great increases in her strength. She's overcome so many of her weaknesses and every child needs that," she said.

UTPA has tested and provided service to 15 children over the past year but unfortunately due to lack of funds, has not been able to help the many more kids who are currently on a waiting list.

"Research has shown us that the earlier children are identified and the earlier intervention begins, the better the outcomes," Fielding said. "National data indicates that the average age that children of the majority culture are identified for an autism spectrum disorder is between ages four and five. For Hispanic children the average is closer to seven. Therefore it is crucial that children are identified as early as possible and that parents receive training in putting together a comprehensive intervention program for their child."

Statistics show the number of children born with autism has risen sharply in the United States in recent years. In fact, the Center for Disease Control estimates that autism develops in as many as 1 in 166 children when just 10 years ago, the rate was close to 1 in 10,000 births. The Valley is not immune to this epidemic, Fielding said.

"In Region One alone, which encompasses all the South Texas school districts, more than 600 school-aged children are identified as having some form of autism. That amount doesn't include autistic kids who aren't old enough to attend school or those who are not yet officially diagnosed," she said.

The federal proposal is due to be submitted before the Aug. 15 NIH deadline. Private donors who are interested in learning more about the proposed center or would like to contribute to this cause can call UTPA's College of Education at 956/381-3627.