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UM Autism Clinic Takes to the Road in Van

June 26, 2008

By Erika Capek, The Miami Herald

Jun. 26–Friendly and popular with University of Miami students and staff, Kent Schomber’s disability is hard to see. He is autistic; yet, Schomber doesn’t let that get in his way.

He works in the UM psychology department as a senior clerk for the Autism Center and has been called a “poster child” for how parents want to see their autistic children functioning in the world.

“I’ve noticed much improvement in the study of autism over the last 10 years,” said Maria Lapone, the mother of 12-year-old Gabriella, who was diagnosed with autism when she was a baby.

Even with improved research, one out of every 150 children is diagnosed with autism, according to Diane Adreon, associate director of the UM-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. It is estimated there are 40,000 children in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties who have autism or autistic-related disabilities and aren’t getting the help they need.

But with the unveiling of the first Mobile Autism Family Clinic on June 19, families who didn’t have the means to get to a center now will have a free autism clinic brought to them.

The UM-NSU CARD is the first to try this approach.

“It’s clear that the families that needed us most couldn’t get to us,” said Dr. Michael Alessandri, executive director of the center. “These people are underserved, underrepresented, and now finally we’re able to do something about it.”

Five years ago, Alessandri came up with the idea of a mobile autism clinic after seeing a Red Cross blood mobile. But his vision didn’t begin to take shape for several years because of a lack of funding.

But with a recent $56,000 grant from Unicorn Children’s Foundation, an international nonprofit organization, and private donations, the mobile clinic was completed this month.

The 23-foot UM-NSU CARD bus is customized with a therapy and evaluation room in the back and a waiting room and work station in the front. The back of the bus has video cameras that connect to recording equipment and a monitor in the waiting room, so families can watch and interact with their children.

“When children are diagnosed early, there’s overwhelmingly better results,” said Florida Secretary of Health/Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros. “This mobile unit is great because it will help with early screenings and treatment methods and provide support services to families in need.”

According to Natalee George, coordinator for UM-NSU CARD, the mobile clinic does not diagnose a child with any disability. However, visiting the clinic is the first step to take for parents looking for answers.

Families will be able to meet with a clinician and have a reading done on the child. If there is a disability, the parents will be given information on what to do next, including where to go for a more formal assessment.

“Early intervention is very important,” George said. “It’s imperative that we get into the communities that have been in the dark about autism and do something about it.”

The mobile clinic’s first stop will be Sept. 13 at The Children’s Trust Health Expo. It will be outside Arnold Hall at the Miami-Dade County Fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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