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The autism clinic of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development sees about 50 children every year.

Kendra Atcherson has always had difficulty with communication. The 5-year-old from Ft. Washington, Md., was diagnosed with autism when she was younger and began receiving treatment at the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development’s Autism and Communication Disorders Clinic when she was 2 years old.

“Kendra has been walking since she was nine months old,” her mother, Kathy Atcherson, said. “She could show us what she wanted, but she couldn’t verbalize it.”

Three years ago, Kendra started working with the autism team at the GUCCHD, which operates as a division of Georgetown’s Department of Pediatrics. Diane Jacobstein, a licensed clinical psychologist and research associate professor in the Autism and Communication Disorders Clinic, started working with her at the beginning of her treatment. Jacobstein said she has emphasized basic communication methods as a means to alleviate some of the frustrations of Kendra’s daily life.

“That’s one of the great things Dr. Jacobstein has done for us – help us develop strategies of communication,” Kathy Atcherson said.

Christopher Dilworth (SFS ’95), who serves as the vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, regularly brings his son, Jacob, to the Autism and Communication Disorders Clinic when he is back in the country. Jacob has suffered from a developmental disorder since he 2 years old.* Since then, Dilworth and his son have gone to the clinic four times for annual meetings as well as other periodic updates.

“We’ve gone back and we’ve really had a great experience,” Dilworth said.

In his experiences with the clinic, Dilworth noted that the Georgetown-based doctors and therapists have been instrumental in collaborating with Egyptian counterparts to provide care for his son while abroad.

GUCCHD was established over four decades ago. Its mission is to improve the quality of life for all children, especially those with special needs and their families, using policy, research and clinical practice. Outside of the Autism and Communication Disorders Clinic, GUCCHD currently encompasses 31 other projects and programs, including government-funded Head Start programs, such as Bright Beginnings, a pre-kindergarten day center for children of families living in transitional housing, and Jumpstart, a mentoring and tutoring program powered by student volunteers. The center also offers community outreach programs and promotes grassroots actions and policy changes, advocating for more inclusive policies for those with developmental and special mental needs on the local, national and even international level.

“The center makes an impact not only on the community level, but nationally and internationally as well,” GUCCHD Director Phyllis Magrab said. “And the focus of the center has always been on vulnerable children, particularly with special needs.”

According to Magrab, the critical ages of children receiving treatment from the center range from birth to 8 years of age depending on the program, with specialization for those with developmental disabilities or mental issue concerns.

Funding for GUCCHD comes from a variety of sources, such as federal grants, donations and various foundations, Jacobstein said. Only a small amount of funding for the autism clinic comes from the university, Jacobstein added.**

“Funding is a big concern for [the Autism and Communication Disorders Clinic], in part because insurance companies are sometimes reluctant to cover the evaluations,” she said. “In order to do this kind of assessment right, many hours are needed to observe and evaluate each child and talk with parents and teachers.”

The center’s capacity for aiding others hinges greatly on its financial capabilities, Jacobstein said.

“It would be wonderful if we had the funding to do research and expand services,” she said.

Jacobstein said only four faculty members at the clinic are committed full-time to the clinic, allowing them to see only 50 children each year. In total, there are approximately 100 faculty, student and staff members at GUCCHD.

“We can only see a limited number of children for the full interdisciplinary evaluations with our current staffing,” she said.

Because of this limited service, Dilworth said it is often difficult to schedule appointments at the clinic and it must be done several months in advance.

“It’s such a popular clinic that it’s difficult to get on the waiting list [for appointments],” Dilworth said.

There are other autism and communication treatment centers in the community as well, Jacobstein noted.

“Locally, there are limited options for families seeking interdisciplinary evaluations of preschoolers when there are concerns about autism and communication disorders,” she said.

The small number of treated patients and the long waiting list have not hindered the Dilworth or the Atcherson families, however, from continuing to return to the clinic.

Dilworth said that he and his wife chose the clinic for their son because of its strong reputation, especially for its staff members, who give individual attention to patients and their families in developing specialized strategies that work best for each family.

“My wife and I are both Georgetown grads . but strangely enough, that had nothing to do with our picking the Georgetown program,” Dilworth said.

Kathy Atcherson also said that the clinic’s exemplary reputation in the medical field was the reason she chose it for her daughter.

“I was told by other parents that it was one of the best clinics and that the experts would guide us,” she said.

Kendra sees the Autism Team once a year, but also has more regular check-ups with Stephen Mott, the Developmental Cognitive Neurologist Chief within the Division of Child Neurology of the Autism and Communication Disorders Clinic, every three to six months. Since beginning to work with these experts, Kathy Atcherson said, she and her family have been more than satisfied with the autism team.

Since Kendra began treatment, her mother has seen an improvement in her education. Kendra now knows the alphabet, numbers up to 100 and can identify colors and most objects common in daily life that she was unable to identify before. The center has helped teach Kendra how to get and pour her own juice, become potty trained and perform other daily tasks.

“They love your child just like you do and take that personal kind of interest,” she said.

* Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Jacob suffers from autism.

** Correction: Te original article incorrectly indicates there is a funding shortage at the Autism and Communications Disorder Clinic due to an editorial error.

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