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Burrell Center's Susan Henderson Works With Children On the "Autism Spectrum"

RANDY: We’re back at the Burrell Center in Springfield this afternoon, where you’ll meet psychologist Susan Henderson, Director of the Burrell Autism Center and the Children’s Day Treatment Program.  Children, even very young ones, sometimes require therapeutic intervention by a psychologist, and that’s the job of Susan and her department at Burrell.

     A native of Conway, Arkansas, Susan got her undergraduate degree at the University of Central Arkansas with a double major in psychology and the sciences.  After working for a year she returned to school in Arkansas to earn her Master’s degree.  As an undergrad Susan says she was very interested in the medical field.

SUSAN HENDERSON: The whole mind-body integration was really fascinating to me, and in my early years I spent a lot of time working with the adult population as well as the kid population, and in those early years did a lot of bio-feedback.  It’s been so important to me to look at the whole person, and what’s going on in all different areas, because that ends up affecting us emotionally as well as physically.

RANDY: Though she worked with adults early in her career, Susan Henderson says she’s always been drawn to the kids.  She’s been part of the Burrell Children’s Day Treatment program for 25 years. Her first job post-grad school was at the Ozark Guidance Center in Springdale, Arkansas.

SUSAN: In those early days of practice, I had the opportunity to see a wide variety of individuals.  But my mentor, my supervisor, was a child psychologist, and I learned so much.  And I more and more became convinced that early intervention made such a difference.  And so, the kid world is what I have really focused on.

RANDY: What ages?

SUSAN: MY love is 3 to 5 (years old).  And in the days that I was doing all clinical work, anywhere from 3 to about 13 were the ages that I worked with.

RANDY: But you don’t work that widely now?  You concentrate younger?

SUSAN: I concentrate younger. And then in these last four years I have worked in the Autism department and have supervised what we’re doing there.  Four years ago Burrell dedicated staff specifically to autism.  We’re focusing on birth to 8-year-olds… although, as I’ve worked in autism, the parents in the autism world keep reminding me kids grow up (chuckle), and so they don’t stay just at the younger (age).  Again, I am such an advocate for early intervention, as I think the research shows us as well.  But what I know is that our plan here for the Autism Center is to expand and work with the older populations as well.

RANDY: Susan discussed the work they do with autistic children.

SUSAN: We start with a really good multi-disciplinary diagnostic approach. On our diagnostic team we have a psychologist, a developmental pediatrician, an occupational therapist and a speech therapist, as well as consult from a behavior analyst.  And so that team of people evaluate the child, assess what are their strengths, what are their challenges, and begin to develop a roadmap for that child, to look at “what do we do next?” and “How do we help that child reach their maximum potential?”

RANDY:  It’s a very different thing from “therapy” in the conventional sense.

SUSAN: Yes, it is very different.  It is more behavioral than the traditional—applied behavior analysis came out of psychology, and that’s where its roots are.  But it then takes it to an even more structured degree than what psychologists sometimes use in their behavioral therapy.

RANDY: Susan says “autism” covers a wide spectrum.

SUSAN: With autism there’s a wide span, from real early learners with a number of challenges to really advanced learners.  With those “advanced” learners I’m looking at communication and social skills, and behavior.

RANDY: Asperger’s….

SUSAN: That’s right, and how do I help that child develop those skills that they need? The more “intermediate” learners, and those “early” learners, then that’s when we look at a much different approach, a much more structured approach.  We use the verbal behavior approach: we’re teaching those skills of communication. You know, it really is trying to help them communicate in a way that they can get their needs met.  We’re going more towards calling it a “spectrum disorder” as opposed to “pervasive developmental,” “autistic,” or “Asperger’s.”  So it’s like, from the early learner to the more advanced learner, it’s a spectrum—because it’s not real concrete.  So the “spectrum,” the literature uses that more to refer to autism.

RANDY: So someone who’s not “on the spectrum” is someone who’s not autistic?

SUSAN: Right.

RANDY: Last year about 120 kids came through the diagnostic process at the Autism Center, and about 50% of them were diagnosed with some form of autism.

SUSAN: And that’s pretty typical in the Diagnostic Center of what you see.

RANDY: We seem to hear much more about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome these days.  I asked Susan if a statistically larger portion of the child population actually suffers from autism today, or are the seemingly increased numbers due to more advanced diagnostic procedures.

SUSAN: I think “both” is probably true.  Right now the Centers for Disease Control—and they’re the ones that put the numbers out—say that one in 100 are on the autism spectrum. And I do think that we have gotten better at looking at it diagnostically, and we see more clearly. Some of those early learners, that’s a little bit easier diagnostically than some of those kids who sort of fall through the cracks, because they look like they’re “getting it” but then actually they don’t do as well as what you might think. And so I think we’ve gotten much better at that.  But I do think there is an increase I autism—and that seems to be worldwide.  That’s not just in the United States.

RANDY: Are there any theories as to why? I’m sure there are many theories as to why—but are any of them reasonable or intelligent enough to be discussed?!

SUSAN (laughing): You know, I think there are several things.  It comes back to the controversy of what “causes” autism.  There’s a lot of research that—for a lot of cases but not all—that for a lot of cases there is a genetic predisposition, and then there is some environmental insult.  So there’s a combination of things.  And with the higher functioning people on the spectrum, if there is a genetic predisposition, as they age and marry then there’s a little bit more genetic predisposition!  And so there are those pieces.  Again, I think, Randy, we just don’t know… I say so many times, “I know more about what I don’t know than what I do know about autism!”  I think there are still lots and lots of questions out there.

RANDY: Susan says there are challenges… but there are also many rewards in working with autistic children—seeing them connect with their parents in ways they were unable to before, and connect with other kids as well.  A few months ago a pair of little boys in the Burrell Social Skills group spotted each other at the “Autism Speaks” Walk in Jordan Valley Park…

SUSAN: …and he runs up and he says, “I’ve been looking for you so I could walk with you!”  And he took the other little boy’s hand… and I stood behind them and took a picture of their hands.  I mean, to me, that’s why I do this!

RANDY: Well, ultimately, what do you hope to accomplish in the field, then?

SUSAN: I guess a couple of things.  I hope for us to be the best diagnostic center that we can (be), to help, really, the people that we are able to see, to help set them on a good path.  You know, I hope for us to be able to continue to grow and train individuals to work with people on the spectrum—so that there are enough services for everybody.  That’s a tall order, because there are not enough services for folks.