The Virginia Tech Autism Clinic & Center for Autism Research’s Mobile Autism Clinic has been named a finalist for the 2021 C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award.
The designation was announced by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) with the clinic/research center having been selected as the Northeast regional winner of the 2021 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Engagement Scholarship Award. The award recognizes programs that demonstrate how colleges and universities have redesigned their learning, discovery, and engagement missions to deepen their partnerships and achieve broader impacts in their communities.
A training clinic for graduate student clinicians, the Mobile Autism Clinic started traveling to Virginia’s rural Central Appalachian region in 2018. Its mission: provide expertise and diagnoses for those with autism spectrum disorder. Its efforts are led by Angela Scarpa, a professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the clinic and research center, and Jen Scott, research faculty for the clinic, in partnership with K.J. Holbrook, chief clinical officer with the Mount Rogers Community Services Board. It is Holbrook’s early support that helped make the Mobile Autism Clinic a reality.
The clinic has won other awards and honors since its inception, including the 2019 Innovative Rural Award from the Virginia State Office of Rural Health and the 2020 Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Outreach Excellence.
Virginia Tech will compete with the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for the Magrath award. The winner will be announced in November.
The Mobile Autism Clinic is a renovated 29-foot-long 2004 Itasca Spirit Winnebago. It has traveled approximately 8,000 miles to reach communities within the Mount Rogers Community Services region, which includes the counties of Bland, Carroll, Grayson, Smyth, and Wythe, and the city of Galax. Initially, staffed by graduate student clinicians, the it provided support and therapy sessions for families and children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a group of developmental conditions that impact a person’s ability to communicate and function socially in many areas of life.
Propelling innovative graduate student research, the clinic then offered diagnostic assessments for children suspected of being on the autism spectrum and psychoeducation about best care practices for their caregivers. The project received its initial funding as a private gift from Virginia Tech alumnus Jerry Hulick ’73 and a grant from the nonprofit Malone Family Foundation.
“The Autism Clinic RV has opened the door for services to many individuals who otherwise would never even have had that possibility. It’s changing lives,” said Hulick, who also serves on the Dean’s Roundtable of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the College of Science.
Its impact on families is concrete. During a Virginia Tech interview, Bland County mother Rachel Blythe spoke about its impact on her son, Cody. “I don’t know what we would do without it,” she said. “Compared to where we were two years ago, I mean, he’s a different person. He went from me getting phone calls about his behavior — I mean, and I’m not joking — every day. I would be like, ‘Oh, no, what has he done today?’ And then we get the diagnosis, and we get his IEP (individualized educational plan) and all of his services. And then he gets the citizenship of the year award. I mean, it’s just been a remarkable difference just by coming for a couple hours visit.”
Added Susan E. Short, associate vice president for engagement in Outreach and International Affairs: “At Virginia Tech, a commitment to community engagement is at the heart of our motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). The Mobile Autism Clinic and the students and faculty who run it bring that motto to life, merging science with service in some of the most under-resourced regions in the commonwealth. We are grateful to APLU and proud to see the clinic’s work recognized.”
Prior to the Mobile Autism Clinic’s start, autism services in farther Southwest Virginia were limited, Scarpa said. Families would have to endure long travels, up to three hours each way, to reach the Blacksburg-based Autism Clinic. In addition to time, families – often financially strained – would have to pay for gas and food on the road and childcare for siblings.
Added Scott, “Families become empowered with a diagnosis, opening the gateway for interventions and supports and accelerating access to these specialty services.”
The RV is parked for now. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020, in-person services shifted to telehealth, enabling the clinic to successfully conduct additional assessments and therapy remotely. Assessments are now conducted through Virginia Tech’s Child Study Center and Psychological Services Center, while the Mobile Autism Clinic makes future plans.
Scarpa and her team plan to build on a larger pilot project with Community Service Boards throughout Virginia to explore barriers to care for autistic youth and other mental health challenges. Scarpa said the pandemic underscored the urgency for collaboration and the important role that technology plays to widely disseminate interventions.