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Thompson Center psychology team training a record 13 future autism professionals

As autism awareness and prevalence rates continue to rise, the need for highly trained autism experts has increased exponentially in recent years. However, a significant shortage of adequately trained autism diagnosticians and clinicians around Missouri, the U.S. and the world has resulted in months and sometimes years-long waitlists for families to receive evaluations and the care they need.

Along with providing the highest quality of autism care, the Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, and the University of Missouri, sees educating and training the next generation of autism care professionals as one its most important missions. This fall, the center welcomes a record 13 psychology student trainees to learn and take part in diagnosing autism under the direct, clinical supervision of the Thompson Center’s nationally recognized psychologists and neuropsychologists.

“Training future providers to work with children with autism and developmental disabilities is vital. This is particularly important in Missouri where provider shortages are significant and disproportionately affect children with disabilities, especially in rural areas,” said Dr. Connie Brooks, head of the Thompson Center psychology team and associate clinical professor in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions. “Increasing our provider workforce to provide pediatric care to these families is a priority, not just for our health profession division, but for our entire Thompson Center.”

Psychology trainees at the Thompson Center fit into one of four different levels, depending on their personal educational status and goals. Practicum students train at the Thompson Center one day a week throughout the school year in order to earn credit for specific graduate coursework at the University of Missouri while graduate assistants train at the Thompson Center as a part of an assistantship that provides tuition waivers and stipends for their graduate coursework.

Trainees working as interns complete rotations within year-long internships in order to meet requirements as part of the Missouri Health Sciences Psychological Consortium. Finally, postdoctoral fellows work at the Thompson Center fulltime in order to meet licensure standards once they complete their doctoral degrees. Dr. Andrew Knoop, a clinical professor of educational, school and counseling psychology, says training students is both a challenge and a benefit for Thompson Center clinicians.

“Training the next generation of autism clinicians not only ensures that future children and families around the world will receive the care they need, but it also helps keep us sharp as diagnosticians and faculty members,” Knoop said. “Teaching and describing complicated concepts to students is one of the best ways to make sure supervisors are up-to-date on the most important aspects of autism care as well.”

“The challenge and reward of helping trainees grow in their clinical skills was a major draw for me in coming to the Thompson Center,” said Dr. Michael Mohrland, a neuropsychologist at the Thompson Center. “The psychology team here has grown exponentially in part from our joint vision on training the most competent psychologists in their work with children and families affected by neurodevelopmental disorders. Their diverse and enthusiastic perspectives sharpen our own skills and keep us on our toes.”

As Thompson Center trainees, students begin by shadowing diagnostic clinics to observe the Thompson Center diagnostic experts working with patients. Over time, as the trainees’ knowledge and skill increases, they will begin participating in interdisciplinary collaboration, providing direct patient care under supervision, administering and scoring diagnostic tests, preparing evaluation report drafts and providing evaluation feedback to families.

“We as faculty members make it a point to meet student trainees where they are in terms of knowledge and skills,” Knoop said. “Some trainees, such as postdocs, often come in with a great knowledge base and are able to have a large degree of independence from the beginning. Other trainees have less experience and training, so we meet with them, figure out where they are, and determine what they need to learn to move them along the right track.”

As autism rates continue to rise, Thompson Center faculty are doing everything they can to help increase the number of autism experts and thus decrease long waitlists for answers that many families must endure. By increasing the number of trainees, Thompson Center leaders believe they can help increase the number of patients treated in the future exponentially. This year’s record number of psychology trainees certainly is a start.