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SPARC: Autism Awareness Month Is April

Ice Cream and Peas: Autism Awareness in April

Families with children on the autism spectrum are familiar with "the beige diet," in which the child picks foods to eat based on their color (chicken nuggets, french fries). This is one of the many feeding disorders seen at WCU's Southeastern Pennsylvania Autism Resource Center, known as SPARC.

Jennifer Dawson, clinical director of SPARC and a specialist in pediatric feeding disorders, says for any autistic individual with a feeding disorder, "Ice cream is the same as peas." One is not a sweet dessert and the other a tasty vegetable. Rather, that individual lumps into one category anything that isn't beige or the same texture as a chicken nugget.

Dawson says it's estimated that 80% of individuals with developmental disabilities and more than 45% of typically developing children have some type of feeding problem. Because many parents are told their children will probably grow out of their finicky eating, the issue is somewhat misunderstood and often flies under the radar of clinicians. Feeding disorders are best evaluated and addressed early because they can manifest as obesity or failure to thrive, even later in life.

SPARC is the only site in the region -- and one of the few clinics in the country -- to combine intensive clinic-based feeding therapy with home and community services.

With behavior analysis as their conceptual framework, the therapists at SPARC develop treatments based on each client's strengths and needs. They conduct a comprehensive feeding evaluation in the clinic and, whenever possible, at home and at school or day care. Parents are involved from day one. They must follow the individualized protocol developed by SPARC therapists, who help the family transition to home and social settings.

"Generalization is the key to working with children with feeding disorders," explains Dawson, who developed the outpatient feeding disorders program for both children on the autism spectrum and typically developing children.

Typically developing children in the program may have been premature, or suffer from gastroesophageal reflux or other medical conditions. SPARC's services are available to all children presenting with feeding problems appropriate to an outpatient setting, regardless of diagnosis.

In its suite in the University's Graduate Center, SPARC has a large, colorful room for its social skills, young adult and preschool programs. Another kitchen-style room is almost monochrome; in it, therapists work one-on-one with individuals with feeding disorders. Separating the two rooms is an observation room with one-way windows onto both areas. Sessions are videotaped and Dawson analyzes all data gathered during each session, for example, number of bites of food, number of refusals, length of time spent crying.

"I tell parents it's wonderful if I can get your child to eat here in the clinic, but if they're not eating for you at home or at school, then our protocol hasn't been effective," she says.

SPARC is a nonprofit teaching clinic so West Chester undergraduate and graduate students from psychology, special education, and communicative disorders programs serve as student therapists, peer mentors and volunteers, gaining valuable training in the field of autism and behavior analysis.

Dawson understands parents of a child on the autism spectrum can be overwhelmed, so the clinic's policy is to offer an initial appointment within two weeks of a family contacting them for a diagnostic evaluation.

"We offer comprehensive therapeutic services for the child's personal, social and academic development as well as support for their families as they navigate the maze of opportunities for evaluation and treatment." For more about SPARC, visit the website.

Jennifer Dawson,a licensed clinical psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst, arrived at West Chester University in 2006 and opened SPARC in March 2007. She developed her specialty in pediatric feeding disorders while at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her clinical and research expertise and interests are in the areas of behavior analysis, autism spectrum disorders, feeding disorders, parent training, treatment acceptability and behavior problems. She earned both her M.A. and Ph.D. in child clinical psychology from Louisiana State University.