CARD at 25

Back in 1993, the Department of Psychology took a dramatic step forward to serve South Florida families dealing with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which affects the way the brain develops and processes information. For the past 25 years, the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD) has been a leader in researching this challenging neurological disorder, while educating parents and professionals, and helping families get the best possible clinical care.

“We have learned that early intervention is crucial to achieving better outcomes,” said Michael Alessandri, executive director and clinical professor of psychology who joined the center in 1996. “When high-quality therapy is delivered early and intensively, there are significant improvements. The children who walk through our doors today have great potential for thriving in school and finding a job that can support them in adulthood.”

And they have that opportunity, in part thanks to CARD, which over the past quarter century has helped countless providers, parents, and prospective employers better understand the disorder that impairs social development and numerous children integrate into society and reach their potential.

Alessandri traces his dedication to autism research and care to 1981, when, after his high school graduation in New York, he volunteered at a summer camp for children with special needs. “One day at the camp I met Marlon, an African-American boy with autism, and knew right away that this was the field I wanted to pursue,” recalled Alessandri, who continued working at the camp as he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester.

In 1992, after earning his master’s degree and doctorate in psychology from Rutgers University, he accepted a faculty position at San Jose State University in California, where he developed SJSU CARES, a center for training psychology students about autism. Two years later at a national conference, he met Diane Adreon, Ed.D., who, along with former UM faculty Peter Mundy and Keith Scott, had founded CARD at the University of Miami in July 1993. In her first year, Adreon saw 88 clients as CARD’s only full-time staff member.

Today, the UM-NSU CARD program serves more than 11,000 clients from five offices in South Florida with a team of more than 25 full- and part-time clinicians and 25 other research and administrative staff members. The center maintains close ties with the UM Mailman Center for Child Development and works closely with consulting neurologist Roberto F. Tuchman, M.D., director of the autism program at Nicklaus Children's Dan Marino Outpatient Center in Weston.

The center also provides autism-related training for healthcare professionals, teachers and first responders, education programs for the public, technical assistance for South Florida schools, and support for local businesses that hire people with autism. For example, UM-NSU CARD has a strong partnership with Rising Tide Car Wash in Broward, where the detail-oriented employees with ASD deliver excellent customer service, Alessandri said.

“With support from a new grant, we recently created and launched an online course aimed at awakening the autism entrepreneur,” Alessandri added. “Our goal is to promote innovative and sustainable business models and work opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum.”

UM-NSU CARD provides free educational and support services to Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe county families, while six other centers serve the rest of the state. Among its primary missions is linking parents of children with ASD to available clinical resources.

With the City of Miami Beach, CARD just finished hosting its 10th annual Surf Camp, which provides six days of fun and educational experiences for children with ASD. They spent the week developing their swimming skills, learning basic oceanography, meteorology, and open-water surfing and, most importantly, connecting with other peers and building their self-confidence.

“It is an opportunity for us to focus on the kids’ abilities, rather than their disabilities,” said Sara Dajer, manager of educational support services at CARD. As Alessandri notes, more and more parents, doctors, teachers, and communities are dealing with ASD, increasing the demand for CARD’s education and support services.

“Fortunately,” he said, “our team at UM-NSU CARD is prepared to meet those needs, while continuing to invest in vital research to learn more about this growing public health challenge.”

For more information on UM-NSU CARD, call 800-9-AUTISM (ext. 1) or visit www.umcard.org.


Written by Richard Westlund

March 29, 2018