autism support Utah CountyPeople on the autism spectrum frequently have to go to the doctor. Their struggles with social anxiety and communication difficulties make the process uncomfortable and confusing-for them as patients and for the providers trying to provide care. 

But one faculty member in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) program at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions (RMUoHP) is trying to change that, with the help of a community partner.

Jonathan Baird, MPAS, PA-C, ATC, heard about the Melissa Nellesen Center for Autism (MNCA) at Utah Valley University (UVU), whose focus is on the university and the community coming together for education and support related to autism spectrum disorder. Baird, who facilitates many of the pediatric laboratory experiences for students in the MPAS program, wanted to provide students experience with people on the autism spectrum.

“It was all [Baird’s] initiative,” said Laurie Bowen, MEd, BCBA, LBA. Bowen is the Associate Director of Community Outreach for the MNCA. “I’m always looking for opportunities to develop community partnerships. [Baird] called and came and met with me in my office. We talked through some possibilities for what could happen.” The first year after meeting, Baird and Bowen arranged for MPAS students to tour the MNCA and be trained by Bowen and her colleagues on the medical needs of those with autism.

“This year it evolved,” said Bowen. “In addition to training students on working with patients who have autism, [Baird] took the initiative to put together a field trip for children with autism to come to RMUoHP to experience different health stations. This field trip was an opportunity for people on the autism spectrum to gain experience going to the doctor.”

Baird explains that he wanted MPAS students to have first-hand experience. The experience helps students so they can be better clinicians as they meet and care for people on the autism spectrum. “Autism Spectrum Disorder is a weighty diagnosis with many implications. I often tell students, when speaking of interpersonal communication strategies, that certain words are difficult to ‘un-say’ and words like dead, cancer, and even autism fall into that category-to one degree or another. Therefore, I encourage my students to follow the carpenter’s credo of ‘measure twice, cut once.’ That is, first ensure the diagnosis before making it.”

Before meeting the children on the autism spectrum, the MNCA trained the students; then the patients arrived. Students and faculty prepared stations to help the children acclimate to medical equipment, procedures, and flow of clinical experience. For example, one station prepared children to be familiar with things that happen at a doctor’s office visit. 

Utah Valley Autism support

Jon Baird and the MPAS program were awarded the 2020 Michael Sproul Community Spirit Award. The Michael Sproul Community Spirit Award is awarded by the Autism Resources of Utah County Council to individuals or groups that are making current contributions to the Utah County autism community through their commitment of time, their resources, their passion, and their influence as an advocate.

The field trip helped families with children on the autism spectrum while also educating the students in the MPAS program. MPAS Program Director Michael Nelson, DHSc, PA-C, explained that the goal was for students to learn how to “communicate, teach, and adapt the environment and their skills to work with the individual needs of the children who participated.”

Bowen had the opportunity to talk to many of the MPAS students throughout the experience. “One of the students said, ‘I’m really understanding that spectrum because they interact so differently. Something that works well with one person doesn’t work with another.’ ” Bowen added, “It was an eye-opening experience for the MPAS students, and it provided a great learning environment because students could ask questions to help clarify things as they were happening.”

For Baird, that’s what the community collaboration is all about. “The collaboration between the faculty of the MNCA and RMUoHP in providing the didactic and workshop components of this experience will hopefully help students have a solid understanding about the etiology, epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, diagnosis, management, complications, and referral considerations of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) as well as other intellectual disabilities.”

“But beyond that,” added Baird, “I hope the experience has allowed the students the opportunity of empathy with people diagnosed with ASD and inspire them to provide them with personalized care and to serve as advocates for this population.”

The MNCA partnership with the MPAS program created a unique and preparatory experience for the RMUoHP students. “Experiences like these are great for preparing students to be healthcare providers,” said Nelson. “The students remain grounded to reality while being with real patients; they remember what all of the studying and learning is about, and they learn to build connections with those they see.”

The MNCA, explained Bowen, is focused on finding “innovative ways to increase awareness and access to support that hasn’t been available. We’re trying to change how things are going moving forward. And the best way to do that is with students because they learn it in the classroom and then spread that information as they practice,” said Bowen.

“Something like autism impacts all of us, whether we recognize it or not. Taking the time for RMUoHP to look at autism more in-depth develops understanding and increases awareness. It means we can improve lives and save lives. That’s what we’re doing.”

Whether through the MPAS classroom experiences or through the work and resources of the MNCA, the partnership benefits the community. “We’re really working on creating a community of belonging…These types of events and opportunities create that sense of belonging because it takes out the stigma and the lack of understanding that people with disabilities have different needs, but they are just as important as everyone else,” said Bowen.

Bowen shared one such example. “One of the older children’s aids asked one of the MPAS students who was wearing scrubs just to stand by him without poking or prodding him so he could become more comfortable being near a healthcare professional.” She added, “It’s the simple things that we take for granted that can be difficult for someone else, and how simple of a solution for that student to just come and stand by the boy with autism.”

Experiences like these create learning moments for students and help foster support for those in the community. “It’s someone taking the time to create the environment for that to happen,” said Bowen. “And that’s what [Baird] did.”

–By Stephanie Bentley, Institutional Marketing & Communication Manager