President John A. Fry presented the first vehicle in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Mobile Resources and Education for Autism and Community Health program, May 29 in the Drexel quad. About 50 professors, students and associates of the Autism Institute showed up to celebrate the mobile unit’s premiere.
A little larger than the average food truck, the van is custom-designed to provide a mobile clinic for patients of all ages to receive neuropsychological and psychosocial behavioral evaluations for autism assessment to the Philadelphia community, starting fall 2014.
“Obviously this vehicle is going to have a major impact on the way in which we do our work with autistic children and their families,” Fry said in his opening address.
He continued, “If we can meet clients that are dealing with autism where they live in their neighborhoods, then we can broaden our impact and expand the amount of information that we can gather together, which will give us, of course, ways in which we can work more effectively [to treat autism].”
The van represents not just a public health movement in the community, but also the collaborative efforts of the school of Public Health and Education and the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design that made the creation of this program possible.
Students from Westphal customized the interior of the van to include various utilities that may prove helpful in assessment, making the van both inviting and adaptable to the recommendations of autism experts. For instance, the interior of the van provides a comfortable environment for behavioral assessments, sporting LED lighting and warm colors. It also includes a small table, adjustable seating, a sink and two small refrigerators — one for storing biological specimens and one for food.
“When you can get Public Health, Westphal and the School of Education together thinking about their dimension of the problem, you’re going to get a much better approach as a result,” Fry said.
Mobile REACH is the first program of its kind to treat autism as a public health issue. With it, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute aims to teach families how to better educate and nurture autistic children.
Director Craig Newschaffer explained the institute’s concentration in his own words, saying, “What we try to do is we try to focus on population-level science with the intent of preventing disability and promoting quality of life in children with autism and their families.”
“One of the things that’s central to this different wave of thinking about autism research is better ways to understand autism’s impact in our communities — how it affects individuals, how it affects families and the neighborhoods where they live,” he continued.
In order to do this, traveling into these communities using Mobile REACH is essential. Clinical assessment teams will take the vehicle out to evaluate certain children participating in both research studies and model programs.
Ana V. Diez Roux, dean of the School of Public Health, sees the creation of this van as a landmark for Drexel.
“I think new research centers like the Autism Institute show that Drexel is making the kinds of investments in talent and in facilities that will not only make Drexel a top research university, but will also make one that is committed to making the difference to solving the problems that we face in society,” Diez Roux said.
“[This program] focuses on groups in society that would otherwise be overlooked or underserved,” she continued, addressing the fact that this mobile unit will allow Drexel to reach families who would not be able to make it out to academic testing centers at Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania or even The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia normally.
James Connell, director of the clinical core for the institute, expanded on this point, “I think that Mobile REACH represents opportunity. Opportunity for families in their neighborhood to have screenings that perhaps lead to a diagnosis that would then tell them how to move forward with their caring obligation, with the development of their education plan, and what to do next.”
The Mobile REACH unit is supported by the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation and the Philadelphia Eagles.
To get involved with volunteering with the Autism Institute or to find out more about Mobile REACH, email AutismInstitute@drexel.edu.