New Alfred University clinic fills crucial need for autism evaluations in the Southern Tier

Now, Southern Tier families can access autism evaluation services much closer to home.

Neal Simon
The Evening Tribune

The new Autism Evaluation Clinic at Alfred University is knocking down roadblocks for Southern Tier residents seeking a more productive future for themselves and their children.

The clinic provides families with easier access to diagnostic services for children and adults who may be on the autism spectrum, at no charge.

Prior to Alfred University opening its clinic, the only autism evaluation programs in the region were in Rochester and Buffalo, a 90-minute to two-hour drive for many families in the area. 

Alfred University's Crandall Wellness Center.

The university clinic began offering autism evaluations in September after two advanced School Psychology doctoral students, Kelsey Elliott and Abby Nevill, completed specialized instruction in the best practices of the evaluation and diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“There are only a small handful of places in western New York that offer this,” said Dr. Steve Byrne, CFSC director and associate professor of Counseling at Alfred University. “It’s a very difficult service to access for many families.” Byrne said the difficulties are particularly acute for families in Allegany and Cattaraugus counties. 

The evaluations are conducted at the university's Child and Family Service Center under the live supervision of licensed faculty, Lynn O’Connell, professor of school psychology, and Andrea Burch, assistant professor of school psychology.

O’Connell shared her experience with an Allegany County family that was seeking an autism evaluation but was stymied by financial concerns, travel limitations and long waiting lists at city clinics.

“I had go way back on this dirt road to do this preschool evaluation for a three-year old who is pretty much non-verbal,” she related. “Because of COVID, they only had one car that works intermittently. It’s not possible for them to go to Rochester. It would be like me trying to go to France. It’s just not going to happen."

Now the family will access autism evaluation services much closer to home, in the county they live.

"They’re willing to do that," O’Connell said. "I think part of that is our developing that personal relationship with them.”

Filling a critical need for young adults with ASD

What separates the Alfred University program from other mental health clinics in the Southern Tier Region is its ability to conduct Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale (ADOS) exams.

O’Connell said this is especially critical for high-functioning young adults who may have graduated from high school and even passed Regents exams, but don’t have independent life skills to manage money, cook for themselves or navigate the job application process.

While there are some mental health clinics in the Southern Tier region with the ability to complete a portion of the assessment, the Alfred clinic is a one-stop shop, O'Connell said.

"(The other) places don’t have anybody that can do the one remaining piece which is the ADOS, so we’re filling a really big need,” she said. “So now, a person like that, once they have the documentation the state needs, now they can access services."

Appropriate treatment, benefits depend on clinic evaluations

Often, a comprehensive diagnostic autism evaluation determines eligibility for special education programs as well as access to government services through the New York State Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities.

The office is responsible for coordinating services for New Yorkers with developmental disabilities, including ASD.

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Autism evaluation clinics like the one at Alfred play an important role in determining eligibility for support and services, according to the office's director of communications, Jennifer O’Sullivan.

Clinics like Alfred's “are especially necessary in rural areas of the state where choices are limited,” O’Sullivan said.

An eligibility determination provides families access to Medicaid-funded long-term care programs such as habilitation, which helps individuals with disabilities attain, retain or improve their daily living skills.

The Alfred University Child and Family Services Center has become an integral part of the network of mental health and educational assessment services for rural residents in Southern Western New York. The center is home to the Alfred University Autism Evaluation Clinic.

Eligibility also opens New York state-funded family support services designed to assist families in providing care for their loved ones who live full-time in the family home, as well as employment supports, which include ongoing job coaching, job matching, and vocational training, O’Sullivan said.

Grants help make AU Autism Evaluation Clinic a reality

Alfred University’s Lea R. Powell Institute and Child and Family Services Center secured $20,000 in grants for the clinic and services through the center are provided to families at no cost.

The Lea R. Powell Institute for Children and Families contributed $15,000. The Powell Institute serves as an organizing entity for the research, training and service missions of the university's Division of Counseling and School Psychology.

The other piece of funding came from Family Foundation, Inc., of Silver Spring, Md., which awarded $5,000 to the clinic. The small non-profit provides funds for programs that offer direct mental health and educational services to under-served populations, both in the United States and abroad.

Richard Miller, president of the Family Foundation, expressed his support for the Alfred University Clinic.

“The Family Foundation partnership with Alfred University is an example where we responded to a need for autism services in an area largely under-served and also to encourage Alfred University to create a specific training program for future clinicians to work with this under-served population,” Miller said.

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Kevin A. Curtin, chair of the Alfred University Counseling Department, said organizers are pleased with the autism evaluation clinic's early successes. Curtin noted the clinic has already achieved about 25% of its 20-patient goal with another five or six people waiting for their evaluations.

A letter from the Child and Family Service Center was distributed to local school districts, pediatricians, and other community professionals letting families know that there is now easier access to autism evaluations. Parents are welcome to refer their own children by calling 607-871-2229.

According to university organizers, there is optimism that the clinic will continue beyond the current academic year and that additional funding will be available.

“We have a sense that if we need funding for next year that we’ve been encouraged to ask for that,” Curtin said.

Curtin said the program will be evaluated after the year is over, but he likes what he has seen so far, saying, “It’s going very well.”

And there is no expectation that the need for local autism evaluations will disappear.

"We understand the needs of folks in this area," he said. "We want to make sure that this is affordable. The alternative is to drive to Rochester, and they’ve got nice facilities up there, but some people can’t do that.”

Funding is in place to continue the clinic through May 2022.

“Everybody we’ve seen this year has been very appreciative and grateful for our work," O’Connell said. “These people have been waiting months, in some cases years, to get an evaluation."

Understanding ASD

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects communication and behavior, and its effects usually appear early in life

The condition is known as a spectrum disorder because an array of behaviors and their severity may vary depending on the individual.

A 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found about 1 in 54 of 8-year-old children are identified with ASD, based on tracking within 11 communities in the United States.

According to the CDC, boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ASD.

Sources: CDC & National Institute of Mental Health