First Autism Diagnosis Certificate Students Set to Graduate

September 21, 2020

A new certificate program helps nurse practitioners provide early diagnosis and health services for children on the autism spectrum.

The program is unique in its inclusion of both UA LEND faculty and UA LEND graduates.

The first cohort of students in the University of Arizona College of Nursing's Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Certificate Nurse Practitioner Program. From left: Allison Crawford, Cleo Park, Mary Beth Piraino, Cynthia Garcia.

University of Arizona LEND Faculty and Alumni were inspired to make a difference in the care of children with autism in the state of Arizona. A group of UA LEND autism experts joined with a state Medicaid health plan and the University of Arizona College of Nursing to train specialist nurse practitioners to diagnose and care for children and adolescents who have autism.

Over the past 20 years, the number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder has increased from about 1 in 150 to 1 in 54. In 2018, insurance provider Arizona Complete Health approached the University of Arizona Health Sciences and expressed a need for specialized providers to help serve the growing number of children and adolescents on the autism spectrum.

Less than a year later, the College of Nursing and UA LEND launched a program to fill that community void, and now, the first students are poised to graduate from the nation's only Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Certificate Nurse Practitioner Program. The new certificate is a way for Health Sciences to help bolster the next generation of nurse practitioners, giving them an extra tool in their patient care kit.

The certificate program allows full-time nurse practitioners to enhance their education by learning more about diagnosing, managing, and treating autism spectrum disorders. The students gain information from weekly interactions with other experts, including speech language pathologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, developmental pediatricians, nurse practitioners, behavioral analysts and more.

The first cohort of four students completed the year-long certificate program in August 2020 prepared to diagnose and manage treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder. In addition, the students developed new professional collaborations and professional peers for life.

Gloanna Peek, PhD, CPNP, RN, is the coordinator of the Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Certificate Program. Dr. Peek coordinated the program with many other Health Sciences partners, particularly the Arizona LEND program at the University of Arizona and by August 2019, the first cohort was in the classroom.

The UA ASD certificate program is based on the principles of the Arizona LEND and provides education and training in the clinical knowledge (clinical expertise, and interdisciplinary process), leadership, collaboration and research skills that are necessary for the diagnosis and management of ASD.

The UA ASD certificate program has been benefited from the Arizona LEND program in terms of both content experts and previous LEND graduates as students. The principle content experts for the ASD program that are also LEND faculty are Sydney Rice, MD, MS, Andrew Gardner, PhD, BCBA-D, and Jennifer Casteix, MS, CCC-SLP.

Dr. Rice has been instrumental in developing and providing expertise for the curriculum and leadership skills for the program. Dr. Gardner has been an invaluable content expert and has provided numerous lectures on evidence-based interventions for ASD. The UA ASD program has also benefited from the clinical expertise of Ms. Casteix, who provided planning support and evidence-based content. Each of the Arizona LEND faculty have shared their expertise and experiences, as well as role modeled the leadership and mentoring integral to the LEND program.

UA LEND Faculty

Jennifer Castiex, MS, CCC-SLP and Andrew Gardner, PhD, BCBA-D,Sydney Rice, MD, MS

The UA ASD certificate program has two previous LEND graduates in the first cohort. Allison Crawford and Cynthia Garcia brought strong leadership and collaboration skills obtained through their participation in the program as trainees.

This program is for those who are already nurse practitioners working full time in a clinical setting, so he results were evident quickly. Our nurse practitioner-students identified not only autism spectrum disorder but other developmental delays in their patients resulting in quicker referrals into appropriate services.