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Treating Autism

– One Child, One Family at a Time, Near and Far –

April 1, 2013 Saint Peter's Healthcare System Community Calendar Featured Article.

April 2013 Featured Article, Treating Autism

Barbie Zimmerman-Bier, M.D., chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, and Genevieve Kumapley, PharmD, a pharmacist and an advocate for families coping with autism, lead training sessions during a mission to Ghana.

A lifelong neurological condition, autism affects one in every 49 children in New Jersey. Last year the Centers for Disease Control released the results of a study that showed an alarming increase in the number of New Jersey children diagnosed with autism. The study, which tracked autism in 14 states, showed that the rate of autism in New Jersey had doubled in six years, placing New Jersey second only to Utah.

At The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s University Hospital, there is a hands-on, comprehensive approach to the treatment of symptoms that goes beyond prescribing medications. New doctors are trained in the early diagnosis of autism, research is undertaken in partnership with major medical institutions, and all healthcare providers are involved in the development of the best treatment options for each child. Like other chronic conditions, autism affects whole families. At Saint Peter’s, educational and emotional support are also available to caregivers.

In recent months, the Saint Peter’s autism team has taken on an international mission to Ghana, a country in West Africa, and the establishment of a parent-training program at the Lakeview School in Edison.

“Our goal is to support everyone who interacts with a child with autism — parents, siblings, pediatricians, nurses, teachers — to help them better handle the day-to-day situations that may arise, and to do this wherever we can,” says Barbie Zimmerman-Bier, M.D., chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s. Dr. Zimmerman-Bier leads the charge with Genevieve Kumapley, PharmD, a doctor of pharmacy and founder of the locally-based charity and parent support group called MyGOAL–My Gateway to Overcoming Autism in Life, which runs support groups out of Saint Peter’s. For both the cause is personal and professional. Both are the mothers of children with autism. Dr. Zimmerman-Bier is the mother of an adult child; Dr. Kumapley, an oncology clinical pharmacist specialist at Saint Peter’s, is the mother of a school-age child.

Last fall, Saint Peter’s staff lent their expertise to the launch of two ongoing programs. A grant from Merck enabled Dr. Zimmerman-Bier to launch a series of innovative parent-training and child intervention workshops for families of children newly diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Families have been referred from The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s or the Children’s Center early intervention program in Edison. The program, called Jump Start 4 Autism, is a six-week hands-on training program that teaches parents about the latest behavioral and medical therapies used to treat children with autism. The families attend lectures about behavioral and medical treatments while their children receive one-on-one behavioral therapy in a separate classroom with trained behaviorists. In addition, the families get to watch video feedback and monitor their child’s response to therapies. This is the first program to combine medical and behavioral therapies for children with autism under one roof. So far, parent response has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Dr. Zimmerman-Bier.

The goal of the Ghanaian mission is to establish the Haven International Center for Special Education, an autism and developmental disabilities treatment and training center. The center is a project of Dr. Kumapley’s organization, MyGoal Inc. Last year’s trip was made possible in part by a grant from Focus Autism, located in Watchung.

“Our mission is to work with local Ghanaian resources to promote awareness of autism and developmental disorders,” says Dr. Kumapley, a native of Ghana. As is the case at Saint Peter’s, Haven’s work will be multidisciplinary and family-centered. The long-range plan calls for the eventual creation of a vocational program for adults with autism and a respite program for families coping with autism, Kumapley adds.

To learn more about autism services at The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s University Hospital, call 732-339-7045 or visit saintpetershcs.com/autism.