Immigrant families with children on the autism spectrum are often adrift in bureaucracy: their children’s learning needs are entirely new to them; language and cultural barriers make learning about services confusing; and limitations of work, transportation, and other family obligations create built-in barriers to access. After navigating the system with her husband and two autistic children, Anna Perng, a resident of Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood and former Obama Administration appointee, decided to improve the situation. Now Temple University faculty are partnering with Ms. Perng to solve these problems – and inspiring a model for student clinical opportunities across the College of Public Health.
With backing from the Philadelphia Autism Project’s SEED Money grant program, Ms. Perng began organizing monthly workshops with Chinatown Medical Services and Chinatown Learning Center, connecting community members with therapists, social workers, and other experts to help them understand their rights and their kids’ disabilities. Soon she connected with Roger Ideishi, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Temple, and the program became the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity Initiative.
“Whether it’s the school system or the health system, these families are getting lost in the shuffle because of cultural and linguistic differences,” Dr. Ideishi says. Yet, he notes, despite the best efforts of providers, the infrastructure simply isn’t set up to meet all these needs. “There’s a lot of miscommunication and misinterpretation, and these families are just feeling totally lost,” he says.
About 50 participants attend monthly workshops, and about 10 families currently receive ongoing support. Each semester the interdisciplinary program brings in six to 12 graduate students from occupational therapy, physical therapy, communication science, public health, and school psychology.
In September 2016 the initiative received a $150,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to provide linguistic and cultural translation, education, and strategies for bringing classroom and health interventions into homes and to identify the most common and important challenges and barriers these families face when accessing services, create programs to meet those needs, and evaluate their efforts.
“This grant allows us to pull in advocates and translators to work directly with the family to help fill the gaps,” Dr. Ideishi says. “And it’s a great opportunity for Temple students to understand cultural sensitivities, to prepare a workforce that understands how to navigate cultural situations more effectively.”
Leaders and members of the initiative will be honored by the Philadelphia 76ers on April 4 to kick off Autism Awareness Month.
The multidisciplinary aspect of the initiative is a big payoff for students as well. “They are fabulously committed,” says Dr. Alice Hausman, director of the college’s Office of Practice and Engagement, who is helping to steer student involvement. “When they meet in workshops, it’s exactly what you want to have happen: They reflect on each other’s disciplines and problem-solve. They’re all teaching each other. My dream is to make this an ongoing clinical opportunity for students. We’re trying to use this as a stepping-off point.”
Dr. Hausman envisions a model of student clinical opportunities based on this initiative. “I think this is how our agenda should be driven. The priorities really should [be determined by the needs of] our community partners, and this is the perfect example of that,” she says.