It takes a village. A widely used turn of phrase—one that is at the heart of California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) alumna Heather O’Shea’s calling. Her career is dedicated to helping individuals and families affected by autism. For the past 14 years, O’Shea has worked with ACES, an organization that provides comprehensive services to families living with autism and other developmental disabilities. She earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Alliant’s San Diego Campus, is ACES’ Chief Clinical Officer, and stands as the prime example of how one can find true meaning and impact through the helping professions.
“When we go into the helping fields, we often want to help those with whom it is clear that they need our help. With autism, you can’t look at a child and tell that they need your help. We’re working with a population that people miss a lot, and it is a population that is judged a lot. Because it is not obvious to the eye that a child has autism, many parents are being judged as bad parents as opposed to parents of a child with autism,” says O’Shea.
Those parents who are being judged, they need holistic community support to help their children reach their fullest potential. “When people call me an expert in treatment for autism, I usually say ‘I’m not an expert, I’d need about seven more degrees.’ It truly does take a village—it is your teachers, psychologists, medical doctors, speech therapists, occupational therapists—they all play such a significant role to these families. And so, we need a collaborative model. We need a common mission and a common language. We need to treat the entire system,” O’Shea says.
That village is stepping up, and has gone to bat for those living with autism. Parents, advocates, and supporters have carried out concerted lobbying efforts to ensure that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) treatment is covered for autism. Legislation on this matter was passed in California in 2012, and now approximately 10% of the nation’s Board-Certified Behavior Analysts are in California. But, there are still states in which this vital treatment is not covered through insurance. There is still a fight to be fought.
“ABA is the most effective, evidenced-based treatment currently for autism. It’s a growing field, and it has exploded tremendously over the past 20 years thanks to the active parents and professionals who lobbied to get coverage,” O’Shea explained. “But some states still have to fight for that coverage.”
Since 2001, 47 states have begun requiring some insurance plans to cover ABA for children diagnosed with autism. Yet, Autism Speaks estimates that only 36% of Americans have access to the applicable coverage, and only California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Minnesota require insurance providers to cover this therapy without any limits on age, cost, or frequency.
If you would like to help support initiatives to ensure that each individual and family living with autism has access to the care they need, you can sign petitions, you can write to your legislators, you can help spread awareness. There are many ways to advocate, but perhaps none as impactful as dedicating your career to helping these children and families directly, whether that be through clinical psychology, marriage and family therapy (MFT), teaching, or other specialized helping professions. According to O’Shea, it can be one of the most rewarding professional paths.
“One of the many challenges for people with autism is travelling—the noises, the unpredictability, there are many reasons it’s difficult. So, ACES partnered with Autism Speaks, Southwest Airlines, and the San Diego International Airport to provide an autism-friendly airport and flight simulation experience for local families. There was a young man there and one of our employees came up to me and said that he knew about ACES, so I went over to meet him. I saw him, then I saw his mom—this young man was 18 years old and I was so touched to see it was someone that I had treated when he was 3 years old. It was so touching to see him and to see the mom I knew when her child was just diagnosed, and to see how far they have come was just so rewarding. I was crying, the flight crew was crying, everyone was crying, and I just thought to myself ‘Yeah, I’m in this field for the right reason.’”
If helping individuals and families affected with autism speaks to you, we encourage you to consider joining the helping professions which help support these communities. You can make an impact as a clinical psychologist, a marriage and family therapist, or through special education.