News | May 11, 2022

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Golisano Foundation awards $1 million grant to FGCU’s Community Autism Network

A $1 million Golisano Foundation grant to the Community Autism Network at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) will advance initiatives to improve the quantity and quality of resources available to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, their families and related practitioners.

The network was created about a year ago as an interdisciplinary effort within FGCU’s Marieb College of Health & Human Services to conduct research and develop educational and clinical models that could help alleviate a shortage of community services – especially for those with autism who are aging out of school programs and into the workforce and independent living. Nationally, the prevalence of autism has skyrocketed from one child in 150 in the year 2000 to one in 44 in 2021, according to Centers for Disease Control & Prevention statistics.

The Golisano grant will help FGCU train more students and care providers, initiate more research and provide pro bono diagnostic and skill-building services, according to director Annemarie Connor. An associate professor of occupational therapy at FGCU, Connor launched the grassroots network based on continuing research and community needs assessment.

photo shows FGCU faculty member
“FGCU has this potential to be a hub for autism,” said Annemarie Connor, director of FGCU’s Community Autism Network.

“The focus will be on using the grant with our primary mission of training a workforce that is autism friendly and knowledgeable and to chip away at issues, such as long wait lists for autism diagnosis in the region,” Connor said. “I’m elated. I feel this will really spark a lot of change in the region.”

The Golisano Foundation is “a world-class leader,” she said, “in helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and promoting inclusion, self-determination and meaningful engagement opportunities.” It was established in 1985 by Tom Golisano, founder and chairperson of Paychex Inc., a leader in the payroll, human resource and benefits outsourcing industry. His local philanthropy also includes Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples.

The foundation is pleased to provide $1 million to expand FGCU’s program, said executive director Ann Costello.

“We commend the university’s commitment to building campus and community capacity to meet the diagnostic, therapeutic, educational and social needs of individuals with autism in Southwest Florida,” Costello said. “We know that this initiative will have a long-lasting and positive impact on those with autism and their families.”

Shawn Felton, interim dean for Marieb College of Health & Human Services, sees Golisano’s investment as a validation of what FGCU’s Community Autism Network is doing.

“To buy into what we’re doing and provide philanthropy support speaks volumes for what they see and believe in,” he said. “It comes with a responsibility that we deliver at a high quality. But this is exactly what a comprehensive, regional university should be doing – addressing regional needs.”

Parents like Theresa Lemieux experience those needs every day. The retired schoolteacher saw many potentially undiagnosed autistic students during her career and has a 21-year-old son with autism. She worries about how he will live and work independently and took one of FGCU’s Community Autism Network training courses to learn more about the skills he and others could acquire to help with that transition. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a wide-ranging developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

“I could see the passion Annemarie had was very much like the passion I have about how little there is in the area and how much the community needs to be aware that more providers and services need to come to this area,” Lemieux said. “No one is prepared. It’s thrown everyone for a loop.”

The Golisano grant will boost FGCU’s goal of helping fill that gap. Cost-sharing will enable the Community Autism Network to make several enhancements: refocus faculty and staff time toward more autism-related work; pay for medical doctors or licensed psychologists to offer diagnostic training classes on campus for students and practitioners; and hire postdoctoral fellows to conduct research and develop new programming models that can be tested and implemented in the community.

All will benefit students in the many fields that interact with the autism community, such as social work, occupational therapy, special education, psychology, counseling and rehabilitation science. Beyond them, outreach of FGCU’s Community Autism Network extends to a growing campus population of students diagnosed on the autism spectrum; many face social and mental health challenges that make it difficult for them to complete a degree. Only 39% of individuals with autism who go to college graduate, Connor said.

“FGCU has this potential to be a hub for autism,” Connor said. “We can be generating new programs, testing their validity, and in the next phase pushing them out in the community. Not only is FGCU prioritizing this, but our community is saying, ‘Yes, we want this.’ ”