When the Diagnosis is Autism

The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) gives Florida families the resources and strength to step out of the shadows of autism.

The statistics are alarming. One in every 88 school children is now being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); for boys, it’s one in every 54. A diagnosis of ASD encompasses a broad range of developmental disorders that impair communication and social skills. The severity of the symptoms also varies greatly, from significant impairment — minimal language or social interaction — to the more subtle quirks of Asperger syndrome.

For parents and other family members, a diagnosis of ASD confirms nagging fears about a child’s development, and triggers an avalanche of emotions and difficult questions: Are there therapies or medication that can help my child? Will he need to attend special classes at school? Is there hope for normal social relationships and friendships? Will she be happy?

For 20 years, the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of Miami has been a critical lifeline for South Florida families affected by autism. CARD is not a direct medical provider or a clinic, explains executive director Dr. Michael Alessandri, who is also a clinical professor of psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences. “We are a resource and support program for families and professionals who deal with autism on a daily basis.”

Here’s what that looks like on the ground. When a family receives a diagnosis of ASD, they are often referred to CARD by their doctor or school psychologist. The CARD staff is composed of experienced psychologists, medical advisors, educational support specialists, behavior analysts, and mental health counselors. After an intake session at the CARD office on the UM Coral Gables campus or in one of CARD’s satellite offices, the staff works closely with the client to develop an individualized plan for both the child and the family.

“That plan might include referrals for in-school or after-school therapy, home visits by CARD staff, school visits, support groups for the family — whatever they need to face their particular challenges,” says Alessandri.

Perhaps the most important service that Alessandri and his team provide is the strong emotional connection between families and CARD staff members.

“Families know that they can reach out to us for the rest of their lives. That’s the key,” says Alessandri, who is available 24/7 for his clients. “The relationship is very personal and endures through good times and very challenging times. That relationship is what sustains our success.” 

With help from additional grants and donations, CARD is able to offers its services free of charge to families across the income spectrum. CARD even operates a mobile family clinic that travels to underserved minority neighborhoods where autism awareness is low. CARD staffers park the mobile clinic in front of a shopping center or community schools and parks for an afternoon, conducting screenings and educating families about autism symptoms and early intervention therapies.There are more than 7,000 families registered with CARD, and that’s only for Broward, Dade and Monroe counties. The rest of Florida is served by six other regional CARD centers, all based at public and private Florida universities, and funded by the Florida Legislature through the State Department of Education.  

“We’ve learned that with earlier and better intervention, our clients’ lives can improve dramatically,” says Alessandri, who has worked with autistic children, adults and their families for three decades. “Twenty or 30 years ago, we didn’t think that was possible. But if everything goes well, and we get a little bit lucky, many can have perfectly normal lives.”

Watch a video about Dr. Alessandri, his work at CARD, and the center’s impact on the ASD community in South Florida.

August 15, 2013