When The Hospitals of Providence Children’s Specialty Clinic opens its doors in late February, it will fill a void in the El Paso community felt by families of children with autism.
An expansion of Providence Children’s Hospital, the center will help families across the region cope with chronic medical conditions with specialists trained in a variety of pediatric conditions.
“Part of our initiative is to try to bring specialty services to El Paso – services that are hard to access or not offered in El Paso at all,” said Terry Balderrama, service line administrator for outpatient pediatric services at Providence Children’s Hospital. “One of the initiatives that’s really important to us is an autism clinic.”
The clinic will include a roster of specialists including doctors Carla Alvarado and Shivani Mehta, both child and adolescent psychiatrists with Texas Tech Medical Center.
“The goal is to develop an autism clinic with the idea that we can help diagnose this underserved population,” Alvarado said. “Then we can guide them to treatment that they can benefit from at an earlier stage instead of waiting until they’re enrolled in school and having difficulties in the classroom setting.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is often characterized by abnormal behaviors and difficulties in social interaction. A common misconception is that there is a cure for autism, Alvarado explains, adding, “We treat the symptoms, such as depression or aggression.”
As the clinic develops, staff hopes to collaborate with others in the community to provide additional resources to patients.
Diagnosis is essential
With the new clinic, specialists will help diagnose autism in children – something that for years has been up to local pediatricians to determine.
Dr. Rana Kronfol is a local pediatrician who serves on the board of the Paso Del Norte Children’s Development Center, which houses a community resource center.
“The goal of parents for their children is to socialize as much as they can,” she said. “A lot of times, parents become very strong child advocates. Their expectations change, as does their understanding. They understand, for example, when their child is expressing frustration in the only way they know how. That’s a difficult hurdle sometimes.”
Kronfol refers families to available resources.
“Applied behavioral analysis therapy is very helpful for autistic children,” she said. “Sometimes the autistic child has a certain mannerism that for people on the outside looks very odd; for example, flailing of the arms. The behavioral therapist can teach them how to channel that emotion and movement into something that is more discreet.”
Pediatricians can play a pivotal role in obtaining a diagnosis.
“The reason we strive to diagnose early is because the more therapy you offer someone, the better it is,” Kronfol said. “Usually, the pediatrician is the one who at least starts that conversation.”
Strength in numbers
The Autism Society of El Paso helps families with autistic children learn from each other, as well as from adults with autism. The organization hosts monthly support group meetings, an annual conference, fundraisers and other events for families.
“We usually bring in some kind of professional – a doctor, teacher, speech therapist, anybody that deals with our kiddos – to share their advice and expertise,” said Lynn Hernandez, the group’s administrator.
She says many of their events provide families the opportunity to socialize with others who are dealing with similar situations in a judgement-free environment.
“Parents of children with disabilities tend to seclude themselves, because it’s hard to go out with a child with autism, Hernandez said. “Mostly it’s hard on the child, but secondly, we get a lot of critique and stares, even pointing, so a lot of parents decide to stay in. These events are really important for our families, who are very appreciative for that opportunity.”
Hernandez knows the special challenges that parents of autistic children deal with. Her two youngest daughters have ASD, which is what led her to get involved with the Autism Society.
The organization has already partnered with BEST, Building Educating Succeeding Together, to offer courses for parents and siblings of children with autism. They plan to partner with others to provide additional resources for adults.
“We feel that we truly are empowered by connecting with other families and learning what they went through,” Hernandez said. “When you hear those stories from others, it brings a lot of comfort and guidance. Eventually, we will be one of those cities that can offer more services to our families.”