New Program Aims to Equip Doctors With Autism Specialty Training

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have unique health needs beyond receiving therapeutic interventions such as applied behavior analysis (ABA). However, relatively few medical providers are equipped to meet those needs, despite the fact that the one in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Thomas Jefferson University and Saint Joseph’s University — both private colleges based in Philadelphia — want to change that. The schools recently unveiled a new program to train medical students to become autism-specialized physicians.

While the program is in its early stages, behavioral health providers that focus on autism should pay attention. The program, which administrators are touting as the first of its kind, is designed to help fill workforce shortages and care gaps.

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“This [partnership] is just outstanding, and we’ve already been contacted by potential students,” Joseph McCleery, psychology professor at Saint Joseph’s University, told Behavioral Health Business. “Students who are high-end are recognizing that this is an opportunity for them and this is a niche that needs to be filled.”

McCleery is also executive director of academic programs at Saint Joseph’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support, which will be an essential part of the new joint program.

The center has long provided hands-on training for Saint Joseph’s students interested in becoming autism professionals. It also provides services to people with ASD, to whom students help provide care. In the past, the center has produced teachers, nurses and even dentists with autism specialties.

Now, it will also serve as a pipeline for specialty autism doctors.

“The people who apply to this program not only have to have either a major or minor in autism behavioral studies, but they also have to put in 500 hours of work at the Kinney Center,” Michael Stillman, assistant dean of academic affairs at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, explained to BHB.

Interested students from Saint Joseph’s may apply to the Sidney Kimmel Medical College Scholars program in the fall of their junior year. If they meet academic and scholar program requirements, they can earn early admission to the medical school without having to submit MCAT scores.

Once admitted to Sidney Kimmel, students in the program will receive the same medical training as their peers. However, the expectation is that their scholarly inquiry track — a longitudinal co-curricular experience designed to give the students a specialty grounding — will be related to autism services.

“The ultimate goal is to train the autism professionals of tomorrow, specifically in the area of medicine,” McCleery said. “Those people will then come in already knowing so much about autism, and they will be sensitive to those needs.”

The hope is that the program can make a difference for autism treatment, providing better care and increasing the number of people equipped to deliver it.

“We expect that some [program graduates] might provide direct clinical care to people with ASD,” Stillman said. “We expect that some of them might do research into the pathophysiology of autism, or about how to make health care spaces more welcoming and accessible to people with ASD.”

Generally, the health care providers aren’t usually equipped to deal with the needs of people with autism, McCleery said. He gave waiting and testing rooms as an example.

“I don’t know of a hospital that does a good job with wait times specifically for people with autism,” he said. “[That includes] sensory stimulation needs in the waiting room or even in the actual testing rooms for people on the spectrum. We want [program graduates] to walk in … as autism specialty trained medical doctors [and] change things from the inside out.”

The program has already admitted its first student, who is a senior at Saint Joseph’s, Stillman said. She will take a gap year before entering the program. Stillman expects the program to admit a couple students per year in the beginning, with the possibility for greater expansion in the future.

At any rate, that means several years will pass before the program graduates any autism specialist doctors. Still, administrators are hopeful they’ll make an impact.

“By preparing future physicians, we will fundamentally change medical care for individuals with autism,” Mark Tykocinski, who is provost of Thomas Jefferson University and a dean at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College, said in a press release announcing the news.

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