Parents receiving an autism diagnosis for their child can be overwhelmed with emotions and questions. What does the diagnosis mean? How should they support their child? Who should they tell?
For the past six years, MIT undergraduate students have worked to help individuals and families navigate those challenges by collaborating with Boston Medical Center’s Autism Program.
Through the initiative, which is organized and funded by MIT’s PKG Public Service Center, students spend four weeks in January working full-time for BMC as it provides patient care, education, and community-based outreach to individuals and families.
The program gives students the opportunity to immerse themselves in health care while supporting the efforts of a local, nonprofit hospital to improve health equity.
“BMC is a public hospital, so the families served by the center are typically lower income and come from very diverse backgrounds,” says Vippy Yee, PKG’s assistant dean for community-based programs. “Our students quickly learn that when you work with patients in this kind of setting, you can be brilliant and have plenty of training, but patients live within a society, so there are social determinants of health that are going to limit access to the care they need, the type of care they receive, and their health outcomes. That can be as simple as not speaking English as a first language.”
Following a series of workshops and onboarding that provide context about health equity and other issues, student teams work on projects that include interviewing families, developing educational resources, and enhancing websites and other software systems.
“The benefit to us is immense,” says Alex Friedman, program manager of the BMC Autism Program. “It lets us think about the trickiest problems and know we’re going to have brilliant students come and solve them. It helps us start the year off in a strong, positive way and really grow our program, because we know we’re going to have this incredible resource in January.”
Student efforts also often extend far beyond the four-week internships. During this year’s program, for instance, first year student Srihitha Dasari was invited to continue her work and is currently employed with the program through the PKG Community-Based Federal Work Study Program.
The partnerships offer students a deeper understanding of the inner workings of hospitals, and the U.S. health care system more broadly, through the lens of improving health equity.
“This position really helps students diversify their interests and diversify their experience,” Dasari says. “You work with vulnerable populations, you get to observe patient caregiver interactions on a firsthand basis, and you also see the public health dynamics that tie into every health care environment.”
Drinking from the BMC firehose
Since the program began six years ago, the PKG Center’s team has sought to bring undergraduate students into the program based on their passion for helping people.
“Students don’t have to have a lot of experience with the health care system or autism,” explains Yee. “What we’re looking for are students who are genuinely passionate about the work of the autism program; students who can demonstrate they’re doing this not because they want to boost their resume, but because they care about the impact that autism can have on individuals, families, and communities.”
Following the selection process, the PKG Center begins preparing students for the program in early November. That period also involves Boston Medical Center, which does extensive screening and employee onboarding that includes training in the systems they’ll be working with, communication, safety, and more.
Once the program begins, students work four 40-hour weeks and have weekly reflection dinners with PKG Center staff that give them opportunities to process their experiences and explore how to incorporate social change and social justice efforts into their future careers and academic interests.
Everyday tasks are determined by the needs of BMC’s Autism Program but often include working with patients and families directly. Students are also required to attend trainings, rounds, clinical observations, and are invited to BMC’s weekly research review.
“It’s very fast-paced,” Friedman says. “It’s not easy. Students are entering into a very busy hospital environment where they’re expected to jump in with both feet and learn as they go. Things can feel stressful, which isn’t what we want; we support students, but consistently our MIT cohort always rises to the occasion. The students are extraordinary leaders, they are wonderful, brilliant additions to our team. The work they take on is very important and very impactful, and consistently when we wrap up our program is a lot stronger than before they joined us.”
Dasari liked how she could see the impact of her work every day. One project she worked on tasked her with developing resources to help clinicians less familiar with autism provide care for autistic patients. Another multiyear initiative for MIT students has been adding resources to an educational webpage for families. That website has been recognized as a key resource from a major advocacy group called Autism Around the Globe. Similarly, students have also created a mobile app that can guide a child with autism through the experience of a doctor’s appointment through interactive storytelling.
“Every year MIT students support and strengthen our direct patient care, they support and strengthen our programmatic operations, they think about how to make our program more marketable, how to use the data we collect, they’re involved in our research operations,” Friedman says. “Their contributions are unique each year in some ways, and in others they build off the legacies of past MIT cohorts.”
Improving health care for all
The program supports one of the PKG Center’s core goals of addressing health equity. More broadly, it supports MIT’s mission of working toward a better world. Yee thinks it’s fitting that the work starts locally.
“It’s important for MIT to demonstrate a commitment to the communities we’re a part of,” Yee says. “The students are building out the capacity of BMC. They’re reaching out to families that may not have been able to get as much direct personal attention, they’re bringing their unique energy and insights to projects, and they begin to understand the human side of medicine.”
Along the way, the hope is that the experience helps students use their unique abilities throughout their lives to improve health care systems around the world.
“Being able to integrate social impact into our existing and evolving interests is a big highlight of the program,” Dasari says. “I’m pre-med. I could’ve just gone the traditional route and done research then shadowed doctors and things like that, but being able to help accommodate patients and increase the accessibility of health care in vulnerable populations is something that’s important to me and works toward a critical goal in the health care industry overall.”