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Autism RV drawing

Virginia Tech using RV to fill need of families with autism in rural Southwest Virginia

When the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic unveiled its long-planned mobile clinic in the form of a renovated recreational vehicle complete with a Virginia Tech design wrap to a group of gathered media in early Febru­ary, Angela Scarpa said, “I cried the first time I saw it.”

Scarpa – director of the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic and the Autism Research Center – has a personal under­standing of why a mobile clinic is needed. In hundreds of towns and communities throughout rural Southwest Virginia (and countless thousands across the nation) parents seeking accessible clinical care for their chil­dren with autism are left wanting. And unheard.

Scarpa knows this well. Her journey began as one of those parents. In 2005, Scarpa founded the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic in Blacksburg as a result of her own struggles to find autism services for her son.

“I felt almost responsible for all [parents] in the area going through the same thing,” said Scarpa, who is a licensed child psychologist, and an associate professor with the Department of Psychology. “Appalachia is one of the most underserved regions in the country. A lot of the families have nowhere to turn.”

Angela Scarpa, left, and Jen Pollard Scott
Angela Scarpa, left, and Jen Pollard Scott

She founded the center to promote autism-related re­search across disciplines. But even the Blacksburg clinic is too far for many families who live in rural Southwest Virginia to travel for services. With that, Scarpa decided to take Virginia Tech’s expertise to them. The mission: “We want to empower families with autism.”

Last year, Scarpa received a $99,784 grant from the nonprofit Malone Family Foundation, as part of its atypical development initiative program. She used the funds to purchase a 2004 Itasca by Winnebago Spirit RV, con­vert it, and hire a rural outreach coordina­tor, Jen Pollard Scott, to lead the day-to-day work with rural communities. Scott, who has a master of public health degree from Tulane University, formerly was assistant director of the Center for Accessibility Ser­vices at Radford University.

Scarpa, Scott, and others from across Vir­ginia Tech, and several graduate students will offer therapy sessions for families and children who have autism spectrum dis­order, which is a group of developmental disorders that impacts a person’s ability to communicate and function socially in many areas of life. In the United States, one in 66 children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We really want to build on the strengths of the community,” she said. “These com­munities are very family oriented and have strong social ties. We want to be able to be part of that, but also provide them with the empowerment and the ability to use those strengths to their advantage.”

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