Alumni Update: Casey Burrows, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics

Casey Burrows (MNLEND, 2018–19).

Helping a colleague prepare for a presentation recently on the state of autism in 2020, Casey Burrows reached out to teen clients and their families in the autism clinic at University of Minnesota’s department of pediatrics to ask about their reactions to the killing of George Floyd.

“The world isn’t expecting [people living with autism] to show a strong emotional response, but they are feeling this so strongly,” said Burrows (MNLEND, 2018–19), assistant professor of pediatrics. “We had some amazing responses.”

Some created visual art, others wrote passionately, debunking the common misconception that people with autism lack emotion.

“It’s very sad and heartbreaking to see so many Black men and women die from police brutality,” one teen wrote. “Events like this make me feel sick to my stomach.”

A parent talked about a family visit to the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street in Minneapolis to see the George Floyd mural.

“[My son] was overwhelmed with emotion and we had to leave after just three or four minutes,” the parent wrote. “He might show his emotions differently from others, but he feels them all the same.”

Said another parent: "Children with autism feel these things in a deep and visceral way that I have not seen often in the world until I met these amazing children of mine."

The exercise is a prime example of Burrows’ philosophy on working with children and teens with autism.

“I came into LEND being very trained in a medical model. I did my training at medical schools and departments of psychology, so learning about everything else in the life of autistic individuals and their families was one of the best things about LEND for me,” Burrows said. “Seeing different providers and community members and what’s important to them is very different from what clinicians often focus on, and I’ve brought that into my clinical practice.”

Burrows sees her practice as a way to help people understand themselves and to help them capture their own strengths and areas of need.

“Where a more medical model would see impairments coming in when a child has very strong interests, I try to flip the perspective to see possibilities. I’m thinking of a client I see who has a strong interest in butterflies and is able to connect and share that with people. It brings them joy. I’ve learned so much from him. I see more butterflies in my daily life now.”

Burrows spends 60 percent of her professional time engaged in clinical training and research at the Elison Lab for Developmental Brain and Behavior Research within the University of Minnesota’s College of Education + Human Development. The remainder of her time is spent seeing clients directly and performing autism evaluations through the University’s Autism and Neurodevelopment Clinic.

She recently started working with a new therapy group for young people dealing with anxiety around the continuing pandemic.

For those struggling with stress or anxiety during this time, her advice includes taking advantage of all the ways to connect with school professionals, peers and others, from playing video games to going on a walk outside.

“Build in things to look forward to, and build up your own coping thoughts. Realize we’re going to get through this. Meanwhile, what can I do to keep myself and my family safe? We’re seeing these conversations having an impact.”

Looking ahead, Burrows and other Autism and Neurodevelopment Clinic providers are working on developing more wrap-around care and have recently hired a social worker to connect clients with more services.

“We’re thinking broadly about services people want, whether it’s honing parenting practices or getting them looped into community services,” she said. “We’re trying to think about the unmet needs of our clients and how to help.”