Autism advocate to train health professionals to consider culture when screening children for delays

Jan 22, 2015

Elaine M. Gabovitch, MPA, an autism advocate at UMass Medical School’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, will train health professionals to consider cultural diversity when screening young children for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during a session at the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP) annual conference Jan. 24 in Washington, D.C.

The three-hour skill-building session for health care and public health professionals will be based on a curriculum Gabovitch and her project team designed for pediatricians with funding from the Deborah Munroe Noonan Memorial Research Fund. The curriculum incorporates the Considering Culture in Autismscreening kit, which Gabovitch developed in 2012 with funding fromAMCHP, into a larger training program that teaches professionals how to exercise cultural competence throughout the diagnostic process.

“It’s really important for health professionals who are screening young children for autism and other developmental delays to understand that cultural differences are nuanced and can introduce a number of barriers into effective and early identification,” Gabovitch said. “Delays can be unwittingly camouflaged or overlooked.”

Gabovitch is family faculty of the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities program at the ShriverCenter, part of UMass Medical School's Commonwealth Medicine division, and is an instructor in the Department of Family Medicine & Community Health. She is also the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” ambassador to Massachusetts and the state team leader of its local affiliate, the Massachusetts Act Early program. Both promote early diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities. The training is modeled after the CDC’s Autism Case Training (ACT) curriculum.

The interactive, case-based training scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon will explain the unique needs of families from immigrant backgrounds and how to successfully screen, evaluate and refer young children from these populations. Gabovitch will be joined by Roula Choueiri, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and the division chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at UMass Memorial Children's Medical Center. Choueiri is one of the lead authors of the screening kit and curriculum.

Language and cultural differences between physicians and patients could mean delays may not be identified readily in children from diverse backgrounds, Gabovitch said. While Massachusetts is a national leader in early identification of children with developmental delays, disparities remain among non-English-speaking populations.

While the training will be designed to help health professionals deliver culturally competent care to children from any ethnic and linguistic background, the populations featured to illustrate such care in practice include: Hispanic, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Indian, Cape Verdean, and Vietnamese. These linguistic groups were chosen because they represent some of the leading populations in Massachusetts for whom English is not their first language.

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