By Peter Jurich, Waisman Science Writer
As a third year graduate student in school psychology at the University of South Carolina, Lindsay McCary, PhD, was looking for a new advisor to help her with her dissertation. At the time, Jane Roberts, PhD, had just joined the Department of Psychology and had some data available on younger children with the genetic disorder fragile X syndrome (FXS). McCary was immediately fascinated by the new professor’s research because it integrated both behavioral and physiological data to examine an individual’s observable characteristics.
“I was instantly hooked!” McCary says. “I so enjoyed working with infants and toddlers as well as their families as the project required a lovely combination of clinical skills and research skills.”
Today, McCary continues her interest in working with children and families as a researcher and a clinician. She is the director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities (A&DD) Clinic, a position she’s held since October 2014. Her research still concerns individuals with FXS, but mostly focuses on early identification of autism in those individuals. “Understanding the early emergence of autism can hopefully lead to earlier diagnosis and earlier access to treatment services,” she says.
The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic is an interdisciplinary clinic that provides diagnosis and clinical care for children with or at risk for a developmental disability. The staff is equipped with a wide array of evidence-based assessment tools and educational backgrounds from psychology and speech-language pathology to occupational therapy and nutrition. “Although it is part of what I like about autism research, it still continues to surprise me how much we learn every day,” McCary says. “It is sometimes overwhelming to keep up with all of the new research, but it is also what challenges me in my work and makes me a better teacher and clinician-scientist.”
Each healthcare team within the clinic aims to provide the best support for individuals with developmental challenges and their families. McCary’s background with multiple age groups provides the foundation for her strong leadership within the clinic: in addition to being trained as a school psychologist, she studied middle school education in college.
McCary says that the most rewarding part of being the director is setting up a flexible environment in which her team members feel empowered to pursue their interests. “I really like helping others succeed in their work,” she says. “It brings me great joy to see the students I work with find their passion for this work and continue to pursue a career path that will greatly contribute to the field.”
A focus on growth
In the clinic, McCary’s time is currently occupied by capacity building initiatives, she says, “Because families need access to care in a timely manner and within their community.” Such efforts would put more professionals in the field who are knowledgeable and experienced with developmental disabilities. “There is a long wait list for services in our clinic, similar to other clinics across the nation,” she says. “Much of this stems from a workforce shortage.”
Without a skilled workforce trained in these areas, families affected by autism are unable to get the local services they require; and appointments fill up pretty quickly at the Waisman Center, where the waitlist for an appointment in the A&DD clinic can be months. “The day-to-day operations of a clinic can be challenging,” McCary says. “So while we are working to increase capacity by teaching others, it is still very frustrating to know we are not able to serve all the individuals who need care exactly when they need it.”
McCary currently has a training grant with Jennifer Asmus, PhD, in the Department of Educational Psychology to do just that. The grant, called Project CASTLE, would increase the knowledge and skills of speech-language pathologists and school psychologists related to autism.
She is also training graduate students through the Wisconsin Maternal and Child Health Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (WI LEND) program where she serves as a mentor and lead for interdisciplinary and family-centered care. WI LEND provides training to graduate students, families, self-advocates and community leaders to improve systems of care that assure access to family-centered, community-based services and supports for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities and their families. Trainees gain competencies in interdisciplinary clinical care, family needs and preferences, and the public health system. The WI LEND Program is designed to advance leadership skills.
Waisman Center Clinics medical director Maria Stanley, MD, calls McCary a dedicated leader. She says that under McCary’s leadership, “Clinicians have been supported to maintain a high level of skill in administering diagnostic assessments. Under her leadership, the clinic has refined its model of care, supported training for an ever-broadening range of trainees, and has also explored new opportunities for interdisciplinary assessments and for virtual assessments in the COVID-19 era.”
The training opportunities extend to outside the Waisman Center, too: McCary is working with team members in the A&DD Clinic to increase knowledge and self-efficacy of primary care providers of children and youth with autism and other developmental disabilities. She is doing this through ECHO Autism WI, a virtual platform that provides online support to clinicians around the state who lack specialty autism-related services. The service launched at the end of July 2020.
McCary sits on the Governor’s Autism Council, which gives her yet one more opportunity to advocate on behalf of people with autism. “I’m really excited to see how the goals of the Council align with the goals we have set at the Waisman Center and to be part of the change to service delivery systems in Wisconsin,” she says.
In her off-time, she says that she loves Wisconsin because there is so much to do outdoors, such as camping with her husband or exploring state parks. “After six years I finally feel like I can call myself a cyclist!” she says proudly. Other hobbies have been put on hold due to COVID-19, but she looks forward to them regardless: “Once businesses can safely reopen, I’m really looking forward to going to a movie at a theater and musicals at the Overture Center!”