UVA Starts Comprehensive Program to Improve Care for Autism and Other Disabilities

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University of Virginia professors Micah Mazurek and Dr. Beth Ellen Davis have spent their careers working to improve the health and well-being of children with disabilities. Both Davis’ and Mazurek’s long-standing commitment to this work is, in part, an outgrowth of their serving as fellows and, ultimately, leaders in the national Leadership Education in Neurodevelopment & Related Disabilities, or LEND, program.

For Mazurek, professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development and director of the Supporting Transformative Autism Research initiative, working directly with children with disabilities and their families as a doctoral student in clinical psychology shaped the course of her professional life.

“Training as a LEND fellow was an incredibly powerful experience for me early in my professional journey, giving me hands-on experience and opening my eyes to the joys and challenges of day-to-day life for children with disabilities and their families,” Mazurek said. “Those experiences changed the trajectory of my career.”

Davis’ career as a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and professor at the UVA School of Medicine has been shaped by her desire to see all children lead meaningful lives and be happy.

“Children with disabilities often need special families and ‘a village’ to accomplish this goal,” Davis said. “Daily, I am privileged to be part of the circle of support needed by families to offer their child with disability the same opportunities for fun, friendship, fellowship, family, function and future, as any other child.”

Now, Davis and Mazurek are partnering to co-direct one of the newest LEND programs in the nation. The Blue Ridge LEND, established with a $2.2 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is one of 60 federally funded interdisciplinary training programs across the country that seeks to improve the systems of care for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Mazurek and Davis will be joined by colleagues Erica Rouch and Rose Nevill, both of whom are research assistant professors of education and were also LEND fellows during their graduate studies. Rouch will serve as the training director for the Blue Ridge LEND, and Nevill as the lead evaluator. Interdisciplinary core faculty from the UVA School of Education and Human Development, UVA School of Medicine and Mary Baldwin University will also participate in the program.

The Blue Ridge LEND will offer a wide array of training opportunities, ranging from short-term clinical experiences and lectures to a comprehensive year-long curriculum for a select group of long-term trainees. These Blue Ridge LEND fellows will receive more than 300 hours of interdisciplinary leadership training focused on evidence-based, family-centered and culturally competent care for individuals with disabilities. Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the new program will have a specific focus on meeting the needs of families in rural and Appalachian communities of Virginia and northern North Carolina, including key partnerships with faculty and trainees at UVA Wise. The program will provide graduate-level interdisciplinary training for future professionals, as well as continuing education and technical assistance for practicing professionals and agencies across the region.

The program welcomed the first cohort of Blue Ridge LEND fellows this August, and their experiences will range from interactive skill-building seminars to spending time with children with disabilities and their families in the community. They will also receive hands-on training in interdisciplinary clinics and will gain real-world experience in understanding community systems, disability policy and advocacy. Ultimately, these opportunities will prepare fellows to serve as future leaders in improving services and supports for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Interdisciplinary Care

Each cohort of Blue Ridge LEND fellows will include graduate-level trainees from a broad range of professional disciplines and those with lived experience as family members or individuals with disabilities. 

“Children with developmental disabilities have complex health and educational needs that can’t be addressed by a single discipline alone,” Mazurek said. “Instead, they need a team of professionals who can work together with families to provide comprehensive, coordinated and holistic care and support.” 

The Blue Ridge LEND program aims to address this need by building the workforce of future professionals who can work together to improve systems of care. Through hands-on teamwork experience, LEND trainees gain a deeper appreciation for the knowledge and perspectives of professionals from other disciplines and of individuals with disabilities and families themselves.

A key component of the LEND curriculum also involves direct experience in clinics providing evidence-based, interdisciplinary, family-centered and culturally competent care for children with disabilities. For example, Blue Ridge LEND fellows will spend a portion of their experience in the Collaborative Autism Resources and Evaluation clinic at the UVA Education School’s Sheila C. Johnson Center. This clinic was established through the Supporting Transformative Autism Research initiative to provide diagnostic assessment and treatment planning for children with or at risk for autism. The clinic currently involves faculty and students from UVA Neurodevelopmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, Clinical & School Psychology, and Speech-Language Pathology programs.

A Network of Partners

Partnerships are the foundation of the Blue Ridge LEND. The program represents a collaboration between the UVA School of Education and Human Development, the UVA School of Medicine, and Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences at Mary Baldwin University. The program will bring together faculty and trainees from a variety of graduate programs at both universities, including Mary Baldwin’s occupational therapy and physical therapy programs and UVA programs in medicine, nursing, psychology, special education and speech-language pathology.  Importantly, faculty and trainees from family and self-advocacy disciplines will bring critical perspectives and lived experience. 

“This unique federal training grant links tremendous faculty expertise, collaboration and passion across the UVA Grounds, other institutions, community organizations and even across state borders to enhance the capacity of the next generation of disability leaders in order to improve the lives of individuals with neurodevelopmental and related disabilities,” Davis said. 

The program will also offer a menu of learning experiences up and down the Blue Ridge region to foster a deeper understanding of the needs of families in rural and Appalachian communities.

As former LEND fellows who are now using their expertise to lead the Blue Ridge program, Mazurek, Davis, Rouch and Nevill are powerful examples of the success of this training model in preparing future leaders. The Blue Ridge LEND aims to continue this legacy by launching a new generation of professionals and advocates who will lead the way in improving the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Assistant Director of Communications School of Education and Human Development