The Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (NC LEND) Offers their Trainees Experiences in the Autism Spectrum World, Including a Specialized Autism Training Track

April 17, 2012

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The LEND program at The Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine provides exceptional opportunities for clinical service, training, research, and policy experiences related to autism spectrum disorders (ASD) across the life span. These opportunities expose all LEND trainees to ASD and permit those who are interested to specialize in the broad area of ASD via our Autism Training Track. All of these training initiatives are conducted within the broader maternal and child health context of an interdisciplinary perspective, a family-based approach, and with high sensitivity to cultural and linguistic differences.


Interdisciplinary Clinical Services

In the area of clinical service, the LEND Program offers a range of clinics serving children, adolescents, and adults with autism. These clinics include early autism screening and follow-up, multidisciplinary diagnostic evaluations, group social skills therapy, behavioral medicine consultations, individual therapy, and transition planning. For example, our Behavioral Medicine Clinic offers support for families whose children experience severe challenges in behavior that warrant consultation related to behavioral and medical strategies for treatment. Our autism screening clinic offers early screening and follow-up services for infants and toddlers and their families who are recognizing early risk signs for autism. Our social skills therapy group brings together adolescents with autism and other disorders to work together on tackling challenges in social thinking and interaction. In each clinic, trainees from all disciplines learn about symptoms, intervention strategies, and best practices for working with individuals and families affected by autism.


Research Experiences

In the research realm, our faculty includes leading experts in autism research. For example, Dr. Jim Bodfish has conducted research focused on restricted and repetitive behaviors in autism using behavioral, electrophysiological, and brain imaging techniques to gain a better understanding of these challenging autism symptoms. Dr. Joe Piven, CIDD director, leads an NIH Autism Center of Excellence multi-site network focusing on brain development and symptom onset in infants at high risk for developing autism. Recent published findings by Piven's group have demonstrated differences in brain development as young as 6 months in infants who develop autism compared to those who do not.  Dr. Lauren Turner-Brown's research focuses on the study of interventions for toddlers with autism, including a study recently funded by MCHB that focuses on the efficacy of a parent training approach with toddlers and study of implementation in rural communities. These are just a small sampling of the exciting research projects related to autism at UNC. LEND trainees have the opportunity to get involved in small and large ways in these projects, and are encouraged to publish findings related to their work.


Public Policy Experiences

The LEND Program has led a group of engaged community leaders in autism to "connect the dots" in North Carolina through the Autism Alliance. This Alliance brings together leaders from parent advocacy organizations, state programs including Department of Public Instruction, Public Health including the Early Intervention Branch, Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, the Family Support Network, Autism Society of North Carolina and other private advocacy groups (e.g., Easter Seals), Division TEACCH, and a variety of other UNC departments to work together to promote a more connected state that will benefit families as they navigate the sometimes complicated system of services for their child with autism. Via quarterly meetings and sub-committees, leaders collaborate to improve services, target potential legislation, develop research ideas, and fill in gaps for training to ultimately improve lives of individuals with autism and their families. LEND trainees have developed an interactive website that will serve to provide information about training available across the state for families and professionals related to autism, and they are facilitating our Act Early Ambassador in the systematic provision of Act Early materials across the state.

Another key experience for trainees related to policy experiences comes from the relationship of the LEND Program with the Autism Society of North Carolina. This organization conducts an annual policy summit wherein family members and those with ASD meet with their state senators and representatives to raise critical issues they are facing and to articulate specific needs in their larger quality of life. LEND trainees have the opportunity to partner with ASNC representatives, family members, and those with ASD to prepare for these meetings so as to facilitate this process of communication around targeted policy issues.


Training and Didactic Experiences

Our LEND program has a wide range of training and didactic opportunities that include within program activities as well as state and national endeavors. Within the state of North Carolina, our faculty, along with trainees, support school systems through ongoing training related to identification of autism and evidence-based practice for children with autism through workshops and consultation. We collaborate with North Carolina's early intervention branch to provide training related to early screening and diagnosis for autism by providing a series of workshops for providers across the state. Taken together, these efforts have significantly contributed to capacity building in the state of North Carolina with respect to early screening, comprehensive interdisciplinary assessments, and access to care for all families across the state. We also have begun structuring better linkages between state service systems in an effort to facilitate better access to expert care for all families. Finally, the LEND Program partners with Division TEACCH, the state Autism Program, to support an annual conference on autism that attracts professionals from around the country and world.


Autism Training Track. 

Bringing all of these exciting program initiatives together, LEND trainees who wish to specialize in autism can choose to complete our "autism training track." Completion of this autism track includes a series of educational components, such as didactic experience and guided readings, completion of online autism training modules, and a choice to gain specific skills in 2 out of 4 of the areas of clinical service, training, research, and policy. This track organizes the potential autism experiences for the trainee who will become a future leader in the area. Thus, a trainee interested in interdisciplinary training and policy related to young children with autism could become an active member of the Autism Alliance and help develop and lead statewide trainings related to early identification of autism.  A trainee interested in clinical research related to behavior challenges in autism could join the Behavior Medicine Clinic and join a research team to study repetitive behaviors. These specialization opportunities will help trainees focus on career development and promote leadership in the autism field.



The NC LEND Program has worked diligently to develop a strong emphasis in the area of ASD training, but also has preserved a strong focus on other intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD). In fact, these training components of the program work well together, with nearly our entire faculty being broadly trained in ASD and I/DD. We are proud of our systematic approach to training in the area of ASD, but remain vigilant with respect to keeping up with the rapidly advancing field (e.g., pending DSM-V changes) so as to provide the most contemporary learning experiences for all of our trainees at all levels. We also partner with our national network of LEND and UCEDD programs whose faculty are working equally diligently to promote evidence-based care, state-of-the art training, and access to care for all families of individuals with ASD.