February 1, 2023

Donors help USM secure autism diagnostic training for 70 clinicians

Therese Apel

Faculty in The University of Southern Mississippi School of Psychology launched a fundraising initiative to meet Mississippi’s rising need for more mental health clinicians trained to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In addition to a $5,000 Local Impact Grant from Autism Speaks, $1,000 was crowdfunded via Eagle Fever, a platform managed by

the USM Foundation. Those contributions helped the USM Center for Behavioral Health offer a two-day course on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule™-Second Edition (ADOS®-2) for 70 individuals in Hattiesburg, Miss.

On Thursday, Jan. 19, the first day of training began under the direction of Dr. Rachel Hundley, associate professor of pediatrics and developmental medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Participants included 60 students and faculty from USM’s accredited graduate programs in counseling, clinical and school psychology, all of which are clinicians or supervisors in the CBH.

With ADOS®-2 training being costly and difficult for many providers to obtain, ten community service providers traveled from as far as Oxford, Miss., and Mandeville, La., to participate as well.

“We are extremely grateful for the generosity of our Southern Miss community and the support of Autism Speaks. Because of their assistance, we were able to bring such an important training to Hattiesburg and increase the number of clinicians that can conduct the ADOS®-2 in our area by twentyfold,” said Dr. Kristy McRaney, a licensed psychologist, director of the CBH, and assistant clinical professor in the School of Psychology. “In addition to providing valuable training opportunities for our students and faculty, this training was also an important first step in making an incredible impact on the lives of children in our community and state.”

Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that one in 44 children will be diagnosed with autism by the age of eight, an increase of roughly 23 percent from past years.

“Early intervention is incredibly important for children diagnosed with autism; however, families across the nation are experiencing significant wait times for an evaluation,” Dr. McRaney said. “This is partially due to a high demand for services, but the limited number of providers that are able to conduct these evaluations is also a contributing factor. The gross deficit in psychologists and mental health providers in Mississippi often makes it especially difficult for families in our state to obtain a timely diagnosis.”

According to the CDC, only 46 percent of licensed psychologists in Mississippi provide autism diagnostic services, and less than 17 percent of psychologists offer those services to individuals with Medicaid.

Acknowledging the disparity in services that individuals and families impacted by autism face, licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at USM, Dr. Zachary LaBrot, said, “Bringing cutting-edge diagnostic training to our state is a pivotal step in providing more high-quality services to these individuals. It was an honor to be part of the team bringing the ADOS®-2 training to USM as well as to community providers and other faculty from across the state.”

The ADOS®-2 is one of the best tools for accurately assessing and diagnosing ASD beginning with children who are 12 months old all the way up to adults. Specialized training is required for clinicians to appropriately utilize this instrument which involves a semi-structured play or interview session determined by the age and communication level of the individual being assessed. USM offering this training has directly increased the institution’s capacity to provide autism evaluations to residents in the area.

“Knowing that our psychology graduate students participated in this training gives me great comfort,” Dr. LaBrot said. “They are the future of the field, and now they are equipped to help individuals with autism in Mississippi and throughout the U.S. Starting now with their time as clinicians at the CBH, they will immediately be able to make an impact.”

USM’s Center for Behavioral Health is a premier behavioral health clinical training facility in the Gulf South region for future psychologists and counselors. The CBH offers evidence-based assessment and therapy services to the regional community and provides state-of-the-art training experiences for future doctoral-level psychologists and master’s-level licensed professional counselors. High-quality and specialized services are provided at extremely low fees, making assistance more obtainable for individuals that would otherwise be unable to afford services.

“As a graduate student, I was excited when I heard that we would have the opportunity to be trained to administer the ADOS®-2,” said Rebecca Lovelace, a psychology doctoral student at USM. “Many students do not get this opportunity until their internship year or beyond, so gaining this experience earlier in my journey is invaluable. Not only am I better prepared to serve current clients in our community, but I also have an important and directly marketable skill to take into my future career.”

Participants learned about the different ADOS®-2 modules, in addition to observing live and recorded demonstrations with children on the autism spectrum. With some additional practice following the training, the clinicians in attendance will achieve the CBH’s Eagle Fever crowdfunding project goal to “Unlock Potential for Children with Autism.”

“The ADOS-2 training supported and organized by USM highlights the importance and dedication to training Mississippi providers in evidenced based assessment of Autism Spectrum Disorders. This is an integral and invaluable resource for Mississippi,” said Dr. Mallory Malkin, chief clinical officer for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health’s Bureau of Behavioral Health Services. “Families, children and adults throughout the state will benefit from their providers attending this exceptional training, where Dr. Hundley did a phenomenal job of presenting a wealth of clinical and research knowledge.”

To learn more about the Center for Behavioral Health at USM, visit usm.edu/cbh or find the Center on Facebook and Instagram by searching for @usm_cbh.

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