The Family Navigator Program seeks to provide parents, physicians, teachers and other agencies with the information needed to make decisions about a child's behavioral health and development care and to facilitate access to medical resources.

Photographer: Larry Hamel-Lambert

IAT team

The Southeastern Ohio Interdisciplinary Assessment Team brings together professionals from Nationwide Children's Hospital, OHIO's Hearing, Speech & Language Clinic, the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Athens County Help Me Grow.

Photographer: Larry Hamel-Lambert

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Appalachia Rising: OHIO partnership provides vital care for area children

This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are realizing their promise as they elevate lives across the region. These people-focused success stories take you behind the scenes and highlight the many meaningful ways OHIO serves society by supporting educational, economic, creative and wellness endeavors, as well as other humanitarian efforts.  

Will's kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Smith, was concerned about him. Will was having difficulty interacting with his classmates, and although school had been in session for three months, he still had not formed friendships with any of the other children.

In addition to problems with social skills, Will was experiencing academic difficulties. He often sat at his desk day-dreaming and became extremely upset when asked to complete tasks that were not part of the daily routine. Having experienced similar issues with other students during her teaching career, Smith knew Will needed professional intervention.

She scheduled a meeting with Will's parents, Susie and Sam Brown, to talk about her concerns and to suggest screening for autism or other developmental difficulties.

The couple acknowledged that something was very wrong, but they had no idea where to begin to get help. Thanks to outreach efforts by Integrating Professionals for Appalachian Children (IPAC), which fosters collaboration between Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, community healthcare providers and the local school systems, Smith knew where to turn.

A sea of possibilities

Smith referred the Browns to the Family Navigator Program housed within the Community Health Program at Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine. Administered by IPAC, the program seeks to provide parents, physicians, teachers and other agencies with the information needed to make decisions about a child's behavioral health and development care and to facilitate access to medical resources.

Sue Meeks and Ellen Soroka, registered nurses who specialize in well child and behavioral health, are the Family Navigator Program's primary points of contact. Through interviews, assessments and ongoing communications, they seek to create meaningful connections between families, schools and health-care providers. 

During Will’s intake interview, Meeks discussed his difficulties at school and asked questions about his basic health and developmental history including speech, language and hearing abilities, sleeping and eating patterns, toilet training, chronic illnesses, motor coordination, school and social history, and current behaviors. 

Based on the assessment, Meeks determined that Will’s care would be best addressed through a multidisciplinary approach. She set up an appointment for the Browns to meet with professionals from the Southeastern Ohio Interdisciplinary Assessment Team (SEO-IAT).

A vehicle for action

Funded through grants from the Ohio Department of Health and the Health Resources and Services Administration's Office of Rural Health Policy, the SEO-IAT brings together professionals from Nationwide Children's Hospital, the Ohio University Hearing, Speech & Language Clinic, the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine's Community Health Program and Athens County Help Me Grow.

Comprising local providers, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and a clinical child psychologist from Nationwide Children's Hospital developmental clinics, the SEO-IAT team takes a family-centered, multidisciplinary approach to assess children who are at risk for behavioral or development disorders.

The SEO-IAT partners work together to assess children suspected of having developmental concerns, behavioral difficulties, cognitive delays and autism spectrum disorders. They also look at a child's overall physical health, speech/language/hearing status and social emotional environment.

"The SEO-IAT is truly a vehicle for action for parents who may otherwise be floundering in a complex and difficult-to-navigate system of care," Soroka explained. "For many families, this is the first time they have felt that there is some hope for their child.”

Because of the intense focus that SEO-IAT brings to one child at a time, families often experience a sense of empowerment, knowing that this team has carefully considered all available options and has given them the tools and guidance to effect change, Soroka added.  

A collaboration of care

In the SEO-IAT process, families become active participants in decisions about the course of action, and they learn how to advocate for their child. The team draws on expertise from a broad range of agencies and communities, adding to the quality of its offerings, according to Soroka.

The program’s evaluation model also helps to generate recommendations and referrals to the necessary support services and resources.

“We know that accessing appropriate services early can potentially lead to enhanced function for these children, or at least to the prevention of further delays," said Jessica Foster, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Sarah Taylor, the speech-language pathologist on the team, believes having the SEO-IAT staffed primarily by local people – “folks who live here and know the resources and challenges parents face” – is key.

"Recommendations are made with an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses in our region and take into account the uniqueness and diversity of southeast Ohio,” Taylor said.

Meeks added, "Parents no longer have to drive 90 minutes to Columbus or wait for months for their child to be seen. Our goal is to have local services that meet the needs of children that previously had to travel to Columbus or Cincinnati."

A holistic approach

Brandie Nance, Ohio University's Hearing, Speech and Language Clinic clinical supervisor, fulfills a dual role within the SEO-IAT. Not only does she serve as the team audiologist to ensure that a hearing loss is not causing the behavioral difficulties, she also serves as the SEO-IAT coordinator and works to keep the team organized and on track.

Nance explained that the interdisciplinary approach is considered best practice in the diagnosis of many behavioral and developmental disorders.

Under this model, SEO-IAT professionals review each incoming case as a team to determine the child’s needs. After the child is evaluated from each professional perspective, the team reconvenes to review the evaluations. They then meet with the family to provide an assessment overview and a next steps document.

“Our process removes the frustration of telling each provider the same concerns and only having one portion of the concern addressed by that particular discipline," Nance said.

Although the collaboration between various disciplines has proven effective for the families they serve, SEO-IAT is always looking for ways to improve on these services.

The group is currently looking into how to utilize technology to overcome the barriers of distance, according to Foster. This includes using teleconferencing technology to meet face-to-face between clinic sessions, as well as developing telehealth technology to support the clinical services being provided at the on-site Athens clinic.

“We hope that our use of technology will help improve the sustainability of our program and improve access to our services in the future," Foster said.

A sense of hope

Following hours of observation, interaction and evaluation, the SEO-IAT assessment team provided Will and his parents with a diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder.

But the family left the clinic that day with much more than a diagnosis.

They also left with recommendations about services that would be needed. They were provided with information from the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI) and other autism organizations. And they were referred to the public schools for in-school services to assist Will in the classroom.

Family Navigators also aided the Browns with setting up follow-up appointments with other health-care professionals and service organizations, as needed. And, since the Browns did not have insurance, a team member helped them complete the necessary financial forms that would qualify them for assistance in covering the costs of the assessment.

“We feel it’s important to be providing some of the best services around,” said Nance. “The University is (providing) the place for this to happen… and personnel. The structure gives us the opportunity to serve the community.”

“People in Athens and the surrounding community look to the University to be a leader in healthcare,” added Meeks. “We’re not just about higher learning. That’s not as important to some people as just being healthy and getting the services they need.”

For further information about services provided by the SEO-IAT, contact Brandie Nance at the Ohio University Hearing, Speech & Language Clinic at 740-593-1404 or Sue Meeks in the Family Navigator Program at 740-593-9534. Parents may also talk to their primary care provider for referral.

Related Links

Family Navigator Program Interdisciplinary Assessment Team College of Osteopathic Medicine

Additional Info

Pseudonyms are used for patients, family members and teachers in this story in an effort to protect their privacy.