UM unveils Mobile Autism Family Clinic

Unveiling: Taking part in Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Mobile Autism Family Clinic are, from left, Unicorn board members Elisabeth Dalfen and Jeannette Stark, Unicorn Director of Development Melanie Johnson, Unicorn Executive Director Sharon Alexander, Unicorn Secretary Mary Lynn Bartolomeo, UM-NSU CARD Executive Director Michael Alessandri, Florida State Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros, and Department of Psychology Chairman Rod Wellens.

Natalee George and her family were devastated. Doctors told them that her 2-year-old brother, Robert, had severe autism.

“We saw the movie Rain Man, just like everybody else, and that’s about all we knew about the disorder,” George, a University of Miami employee, recalls, referring to the 1988 movie in which Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant named Raymond.

“We got the diagnosis, and my mom came home and cried for an entire day. Then one morning she woke up and said, ‘We’ve got this under control.’ And she literally dove into it head first.”

With adequate resources in hand, they got the help young Robert, now 12, needed, and today he is “doing wonderful,” George says.

But for many families who have children with autism, limited community resources and economic constraints make it difficult for them to get the assistance they need.

Now, a new clinic on wheels, operated by the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD), has come to the rescue.

Unveiled on the UM campus on Thursday, the 23-foot-long Mobile Autism Family Clinic will travel throughout underserved communities in South Florida, providing screenings, resources, and information to families who are unable for a variety of reasons to access the free support and educational services provided by a CARD center.

Customized van: Adam Ewing, a close friend of UM employee Natalee George, spends time with George’s autistic 12-year-old brother, Robert, inside the mobile clinics therapy/evaluation room. Ewing was one of several people who attended the van’s unveiling ceremony and took tours of the clinic

“We believe it’s the first of its kind,” Michael Alessandri, a clinical professor of psychology and executive director of UM-NSU CARD, said at Thursday’s unveiling.

The roving clinic will be staffed by psychologists, behavioral analysts, and special educators from UM-NSU CARD, which is part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology. Similar in appearance to some of the buses in UM’s Hurry ’Canes shuttle fleet but adorned on the outside with the center’s familiar logo, it has been customized with an evaluation room outfitted with videotaping equipment and a monitor in an adjacent waiting area, allowing clinicians to evaluate a child in a variety of settings.

Alessandri came up with the idea for the clinic five years ago. While walking on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, he saw a Red Cross blood mobile and thought to himself, “We could have one of those for people with autism.”

“My biggest concern has always been that the people who find us are the people who already have resources. It’s the people who aren’t getting to us who really need us. So the only thing I could think of to get to them in a meaningful way was to have a clinic that moves,” Alessandri said.

“Our priority is to go to communities where there are families who have limited resources and live too far to easily get to the University to access our services.”

Alessandri and his staff of psychologists plan to go to community resource events throughout the tri-county area and meet with local church and civic leaders to start spreading the word about the clinic, which is funded by donors and private organizations.

One of those organizations, the Boca Raton-based Unicorn Children’s Foundation, recently awarded a $56,000 grant to UM to jump-start the mobile clinic. An operating schedule for the van is currently being worked out.

Top Doc: During Thursday’s ceremony, Florida State Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros spoke about the state’s commitment to serving families of children with special needs.

George, coordinator of special projects at UM-NSU CARD, decided to forgo UM law school because she found her passion in working at the center. She said that in addition to providing much-needed services to people in distressed communities, the clinic also will create awareness.

“It’s going to put the thoughts in people’s minds that there are hundreds of thousands of kids like my brother who need services,” she said.

Florida Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros, a Miller School of Medicine alumna who attended Thursday’s unveiling ceremony, echoed George’s thoughts, noting that Children’s Medical Services, a division within the Florida Department of Health, provides care to children with special health care needs and their families.

During the past year, she said, the Florida legislature has rallied behind the cause to help such families. She called attention to the recent passage of a bill that requires large insurance companies to provide coverage for treatment of autism.

Viamonte Ros also commended the new Mobile Autism Family Clinic for its ability to reach out into the community, drawing a comparison to several state-funded mobile clinics operating across Florida that provide medical and dental health care to people in underserved communities. “It’s just a fantastic model,” she said.

Autism, which is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests, is now diagnosed in one of every 150 children.