When she came to Virginia Tech in 1997, Associate Professor of Psychology Angela Scarpa was eager to dive into clinical research and teaching in her field of expertise: childhood violence and victimization. But when her second child, Hugh, was diagnosed with autism just before his second birthday in 2003, her professional track took a new direction.
“I began to look around for services in the area to help him and found that there was not much available that was based on scientifically sound autism research,” Scarpa said. “I also learned that autism itself is on the rise and that more and more children are being diagnosed and need services.”
Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction, learning, and communication skills. Autism is a spectrum disorder; it affects each individual differently and at varying degrees.
In recent years, the diagnosis of autism has broadened to include five disorders that fall under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as one in 110 children is diagnosed with some autism spectrum disorder, which is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country.
Before starting the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic, Scarpa conducted a needs assessment across the state, and her suspicions were confirmed.
“We found there was a huge need for services in the area,” Scarpa said, “especially behavior therapy and diagnostic services and assessments.”
With the help of donations from a private donor, as well as from the Community Foundation of the New River Valley and the Children’s Shelter Endowment Fund, Scarpa and her team of graduate students opened the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic in fall 2005. Since then, the clinic has grown and now includes another faculty member, Co-Director Susan White, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.
Each week, several children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, visit the clinic for social skills group therapy. Ranging from 8 to 10 years old, these children exhibit some of the many social and/or behavioral challenges the disability can cause. They may have speech and language problems; they may exhibit odd, ritualistic-like behaviors; or they may talk incessantly about one subject. Some may find life so challenging that, at times, they lose their desire to interact and become isolated or withdrawn.
The center also offers a group for children ages 5 to 7 that uses cognitive behavioral tools to teach them how to manage strong emotions such as anxiety and anger.
“We treat the child at his or her level of needs,” Scarpa said, “whether it is functional language, social skills, self-control, or stress and anger management. We also aim to empower families and professionals to work with the children in their natural settings and in their daily routines so that the amount of learning time is maximized.”
The clinic, which is staffed by eight graduate students, receives about 50 referrals per year.
In addition to treatment, diagnosis, and community outreach, the clinic is involved in multiple studies on autism.
There’s no question autism can be a confusing, frustrating, even frightening disorder for parents, teachers, and caregivers. And for the child with an autism spectrum disorder, the world itself can be an equally confusing, frustrating, and frightening place. The Virginia Tech Autism Clinic is making a big impact on alleviating some of these challenges so the future looks much brighter for these children and their families.
“The most rewarding thing for me is knowing that we can help people and families in the area who wouldn’t otherwise have a place to turn,” Scarpa said. “I feel like each one of the kids who comes to the clinic is my child, and I want to treat them that way and give them the best services they can get.”
Although each child with autism is likely to have a unique pattern of behavior, these are some common symptoms:
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