MNLEND logo.

Hosting a film series and discussions exploring cultural responses to autism. Asking families what services they need most. Evaluating and expanding a promising mentoring program.

These are just a few of MNLEND’s fellowship projects for 2019–20, marking a decade since the program’s inception. An interdisciplinary partnership of the University of Minnesota, MNLEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) brings together ICI, the College of Education + Human Development’s Educational Psychology Department, the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, and the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Speech Language and Hearing Sciences.

The program also collaborates each academic year with a variety of other departments to train a cohort of fellows from the community at large and graduate programs across the university community, with the goal of creating the next generation of interdisciplinary leaders who will improve health and education outcomes for people with neurodevelopmental and related disabilities.

As part of the experience, LEND fellows select and lead a project that matches their specific interests.

Fellows Chong Yang and Mariam Adam wanted to start conversations about autism in their Hmong and Somali communities. They worked on a community outreach team that will host screenings and a discussion of the ICI-produced film On the Autism Spectrum.  [Originally scheduled for April, the screenings will be rescheduled when COVID-19 is no longer a public health concern.] The films, produced in the language of their communities with parents, health professionals, educators and community leaders, address stigma around autism in diverse communities.

“Awareness about autism is growing in the Hmong community as parents are having more experiences with it, but it’s still not talked about a lot,” said Yang, who grew up with a sibling with a disability and now works as a charter school paraprofessional. “Growing up, autism and other disabilities weren’t discussed. We should all be OK talking about it.”

Another project, begun in the 2018–19 cohort year by fellow Stacey Brandjord, developed a needs assessment survey for families of children with autism who do not use words to communicate. It generated more than 700 responses and found significant unmet service needs.

Amy Esler, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Minnesota, is continuing to serve as a mentor on this work, collaborating with current fellows Charlie Davis and Madison Blair to analyze the survey findings, present the work at national conferences and prepare the data for publication.

“We were looking for patterns in services families say they need and weren’t able to access,” said Esler. “Among the most common were social skills training, daily living skills and speech language therapy. Many of the services are ones that aren’t covered by insurance.”

In another project, led by University of Minnesota pediatric neuropsychologist Rebekah Hudock, fellows are collecting feedback and measuring outcomes of a community mentorship program in the Bloomington Public Schools system that pairs adolescents and adults with autism.

“All of this year’s LEND projects represent steps forward, not only in our understanding of autism, but in the sharing of that knowledge across a wide spectrum of communities and professions,” said Rebecca Dosch Brown, MNLEND program director.