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Wendi Johnson, associate professor of school psychology and interim director of the Woodcock Interdisciplinary Assessment Clinic at Texas Woman’s University, will be leading the new TWU/UNT autism center.

For families like Alison Kelly’s, the wait time for an autism diagnosis can be excruciating.

“Parents are terrified when they first start going through this,” said Kelly, who had a young family member diagnosed with autism in 2017. “They’re really scared out of their minds because you don’t know what to expect — you don’t know anything.”

In North Texas, the wait time for an autism assessment can be as long as six months — add that to the monthlong process that is typical for receiving a diagnosis once the assessment process begins, and families can be left without answers, or help, for what they say is far too long.

“Just ... making people wait that long is cruel,” Kelly said. “It’s just downright cruel to these parents.”

A new autism assessment clinic opening this fall on the University of North Texas campus could help mitigate wait times by offering local families another option for autism spectrum disorder assessments. Created through a partnership between Texas Woman’s University’s Woodcock Institute and the University of North Texas, the Woodcock Autism Assessment Clinic will offer ASD testing for children ages 18 months to 18 years. Housed within the Kristin Farmer Autism Center, which already provides behavior analytic treatment programs for children with autism, the joint clinic’s diagnostic aspect will offer an integrative experience for families seeking autism services.

Wendi Johnson, associate professor of school psychology and interim director of the Woodcock Interdisciplinary Assessment Clinic at TWU, said that while TWU’s Woodcock Interdisciplinary Assessment Clinic serviced between six and eight families each month — offering assessments for autism and other learning and intellectual disabilities like ADHD — the transition to the new joint clinic will mean initially performing only autism assessments.

“Previously, we worked with the occupational therapy department and with the Speech and Hearing Clinic at TWU so that way, if a child had come to us, we would do all the cognitive psychological academic assessment, but if they had a hearing issue, we would refer to the TWU Speech and Hearing Clinic or to occupational therapy and they would do a component of the assessment, and then we would integrate that so it’d be a truly apprehensive assessment,” Johnson said. “We hope to do that as an autism clinic. Initially, we’ll just start with the psychological and a comprehensive autism assessment, but we would also like to integrate speech and hearing as well as occupational therapy.”

Johnson, who will work at the center one day a week to train doctoral students in performing autism assessments, said she plans for the clinic to see two or three families a month for assessments at first but hopes to eventually gain additional funding to expand. Johnson will spend 25% of her time overseeing the Woodcock Autism Assessment Clinic as part of an understanding between TWU and UNT.

Johnson brought the idea for the joint clinic to Dan Miller, executive director of the TWU Woodcock Institute; as well as Kevin Callahan, the recently retired executive director of UNT’s autism center; and Susan Nichols, the interim director, after visiting the Kristin Farmer center while teaching a graduate practicum course at UNT in spring 2019. Johnson, who was exploring options to expand the TWU clinic, discovered the UNT center already had a test library of assessment kits, and was just lacking a psychologist to perform evaluations.

Miller said the partnership was a “golden opportunity” for the two clinics to collaborate.

“This was just a win, win, win,” Miller said. “They [UNT] have the autism center where they’re serving youth, but they have no way to identify the children they serve, so they really count upon outside psychologists to do evaluations and then refer them to the center, so what we’re doing is setting up an assessment clinic where we can actually identify individuals. The other nice part about it is that this will serve as a practicum placement for the doctoral and perhaps specialist-level school psychologists being trained, and Dr. Johnson will provide supervision while they get some experience working with kids who are potentially autistic.”

Though the clinic is slated to open its doors Aug. 3 and plans to have safety precautions in place including health screenings, disinfecting procedures and the use of personal protective equipment, it’s dependent upon the UNT campus opening as COVID-19 cases continue to climb across the Dallas-Fort Worth region. COVID-19 precautions that necessitate mask-wearing or telehealth appointments could create complications for assessments that depend heavily upon psychologists’ ability to evaluate nonverbal behaviors and expressions, though, Johnson said.

“Without the actual like sitting on the floor, doing different directed play activities and really eliciting various possible behaviors or unusual behavior patterns face to face — literally with the child — it’s really hard to make a diagnosis,” Johnson said. “Even some of the test publishers have said, ‘You can’t give this test with a mask on.’ The whole part of autism is that social interaction piece and reading cues and the verbal, and you’re missing all that when you have a mask on.”

With families potentially facing even longer wait times for assessments amid the pandemic, Johnson said the need for centers like WAAC is increasingly apparent.

“There’s a huge need in the DFW area for autism assessment,” Johnson said. “Early intervention is one of the strongest predictors of long-term success for these kids on the autism spectrum. These are families who need to know, you know, ‘What’s going on with my kid,’ and they obviously need to know that to be able to plan for services or get interventions that are needed.”

For those touched by autism, getting those services sooner can make all the difference.

“The services they needed so desperately while they were flailing and crying out for help, I couldn’t get without the diagnosis,” Kristine Skiff, whose five children are on the autism spectrum, said. “It is so damaging to a child to keep trying and trying and feeling like there’s no way for them to succeed, and it’s heartbreaking as a parent to watch. Getting those services quicker would have saved them a lot of heartache and a lot of pain and made them successful a lot quicker.”

Families seeking autism assessment services can reach the center at (940) 369-5373 to make an appointment once the clinic opens, or visit the Kristin Farmer Autism Center website at https://autism.unt.edu. Insurance is accepted for assessments.

 

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