Alumna directs programs for autistic children

Robin Gabriels (PsyD ’97) loves children and challenges. So it makes sense that she embarked on a career path that combines both.

In 1985 Gabriels founded and directed a children’s art therapy program at National Jewish Medical and Research Center, where she worked for 12 years.

But after beginning her doctoral work at DU, her interest shifted when she worked with an “exceptionally creative” autistic child who had limited language skills.

“I’ve always liked working with difficult kids, kids [who] can’t communicate well,” Gabriels says.

In 2003, Denver’s Children’s Hospital tapped into her expertise. Gabriels founded and continues to direct a program that works specifically with autistic and special needs children: The Neuropsychiatric Special Care Program and Outpatient Assessment Clinic.

The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2007 that one in 150 children are diagnosed with autism in the U.S. Yet, Gabriels notes, hospitals usually aren’t equipped to handle autistic patients, who have difficulty communicating their needs in ways others can easily understand.

That’s where her program comes in. Instead of institutionalizing autistic children, Gabriels and her multidisciplinary staff work to avoid lengthy inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations.

“The focus is on trying to get kids back into the community,” Gabriel says, noting that kids used to stay in the hospital for about nine months. Now, children transition to outpatient treatment in one to two weeks, and the readmission rate has dropped from 60 percent to 7 percent since her program began.

To keep autistic kids motivated and engaged, Gabriels and her staff create an environment that is visually clear and organized with predictable routines and structured activities so that children know what is expected of them, what they need to do and how to do it. Parents learn about structure along with the kids, and now even school professionals are coming in to learn.

“Kids with autism all have, like typical kids, special interests. So, a key to engaging this population is to find what interests them and teach them new skills linked to their interest,” says Gabriels, who treats 30–40 children in the program each year.

Gabriels co-edited a book on the subject, Growing up with Autism: Working with School-Age Children and Adolescents (Guilford Press, 2007), which covers topics that aren’t usually covered when autism is discussed, such as mood disorders, medical issues, sexuality issues and legal issues.

“We still don’t have a clear understanding of what causes autism, but awareness is getting much better,” she says.

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