Delsandro helps kids, young adults discover their unique strengths
Monday, September 7, 2015

Liz Delsandro recalls riding the public school bus as a child and seeing an older student who often smiled, hummed, and rocked back and forth in her seat.

Instead of being afraid, Delsandro was curious. She wanted to know more about this student.

“We never talked, but over time, we simply sat next to each other on the bus,” says Delsandro, a clinical assistant professor in the University of Iowa Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “Autism was not in my vocabulary at that time. After I started working with children with autism spectrum disorders and their families in graduate school, I often thought about the kid on my bus and wondered if she had autism.”

Four decades later, Delsandro is pleased to be part of a community of clinicians and researchers who are exploring ways for individuals with autism to thrive.

Help raise awareness, funds

The Third Annual Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center Auction and Dinner

When: Friday, Sept. 11; doors open at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m., with silent and live auction 

Where: Second Floor Ballroom at the Iowa Memorial Union, 125 N. Madison Street

Why: All proceeds support clinical programs at the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center. Clinical programs provide services to individuals with communication disorders such as hearing impairment, speech and language disorders, augmentative and alternative communication disorders, and aphasia.

Contact information: For more information, tickets, or donations, contact Amy Behrens at The deadline to purchase tickets is Tuesday, Sept. 8.

 “I have always been interested in the behavior of others, and I’d like to say we all belong to the human spectrum, and we need to strive to better understand each other,” Delsandro says. “With that, our world would be a richer place.”

Autism spectrum disorder, known as ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behavior, Delsandro explains.

A complex condition that has frequently been a puzzle to many—ASD is now becoming better understood thanks to the work of many experts in the fields of medicine, psychology, social work, education, and speech-language pathology.

Delsandro says she feels honored to be part of that movement in her work in the UI speech-language pathology program, which consistently ranks as one of the top programs in the nation.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done in creating awareness, improving acceptance, and conducting more research, Delsandro says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data last year on the prevalence of autism in the U.S. This study identified 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) as having ASD. It is estimated that 8,000 individuals in Iowa may have an autism spectrum disorder.

“With the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders growing, the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center recognized a need for its graduate students in the speech-language pathology program to be prepared to work with individuals with autism spectrum disorders, to provide quality therapy services for individuals with autism, and develop programs to positively impact the community,” Delsandro says.

Of the estimated 8,000 individuals in Iowa having ASD, Delsandro says that the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center reaches about 50 to 55 of those youth, ranging in ages from toddlers to young adults through their individual therapy services and small and large group services.

The Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center is part of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It’s a true honor to play a part in facilitating delivery of quality clinical services to children and adults with autism and their families in Iowa City and surrounding areas,” Delsandro says. “I also love working with our high-performing and compassionate students at the University of Iowa.”

Delsandro has worked with more than 75 families and more than 120 graduate students in the speech-language pathology program since coming to the UI Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center in 2010.

Curiosity and compassion combine in career

After obtaining her undergraduate and graduate degree in speech-language pathology from West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, Delsandro’s first position after graduation was at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where she worked with children and young adults with developmental disabilities.

“I was always curious about what happened to children in more naturalistic environments, such as their home and school, when they left the institute,” Delsandro says. “So, I decided to take a job with the Baltimore County Public Schools as a speech-language pathologist, while I did adjunct teaching for Johns Hopkins University. That started my journey of providing services and consulting in the public schools in Maryland and Virginia.”

Prior to working at the UI, Delsandro worked with the Grant Wood Area Education Agency serving children in the Iowa public schools as a direct service provider and an autism consultant.

Not only does Delsandro provide direct patient care and therapy, she has also championed a number of activities and services that benefit those with autism and their families.

Robin McNeil, from North Liberty, says the expertise and support of Delsandro and other UI faculty and graduate students have made a profound impact on improving her son Aiden’s life.

“He started with Wendell Johnson when he was in preschool. When Aiden started he was very hard to engage, gain attention, make eye contact, had very few words, and was a nervous boy overall,” McNeil says. “Today at age 9, he is full of smiles, easy to engage, loves to make eye contact and smile, and is starting to say sentences. Wendell Johnson is much more than a speech center, and my family is truly blessed to have found them.”

She adds that Delsandro really connects with clients like her son through her compassion and curiosity and invests in their progress and well being.

“Liz Delsandro is called the ‘autism whisperer’ in the autism community. I never have to worry about her next step. She is in full control of his learning plan,” McNeil says. “Wendell also has other wonderful opportunities for my son. They have offered a cooking club, science club, and other social experiences. This is a vital component to communication, learning to be social and interact in a language-based environment.”

One of the things that Delsandro finds rewarding about working with autistic youth is helping them discover their unique strengths.

“We need to showcase the strengths of individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and work from those strengths,” says Delsandro. “We’ve had that opportunity in this community through the AWESOME Autism Awareness Art Project.”

This project was initiated by Lisa Burns, who has a son with autism. Over four years ago, she brought together a group of parents, educators, and service providers, and pitched the idea, and the AWESOME Autism Awareness Art Project was born. This project provides opportunities for individuals with autism to communicate their ideas through art, and share their ideas and talent through an annual art show during April, which is National Autism Awareness Month. 

Delsandro is also involved with the upcoming Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center fundraising dinner and auction on Friday, Sept. 11—which supports many activities and services for those with autism.

The UI chapter of the National Student Speech-Language-Hearing Association (NSSLHA) decided to take on the fundraiser three years ago, Delsandro says.

“Our dedicated students are the driving force behind this fundraising mission,” Delsandro says. “I just happen to be fortunate enough to be a co-adviser for our chapter of NSSLHA, along with my faculty colleague, Associate Professor Jean Gordon.” 

The funds raised by the auction are distributed across a variety of programs through the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic such as the UI SPEAKS program for individuals who stutter, the UI LISTEN AND SPEAK UP program for children with hearing impairments, and UI SAFE educational program for hearing conservation.

Community collaborations provide support

Funds will also support programs such as the Social Science Club, a weekly summer science club to promote interaction between children with autism and their peers though motivating, hands-on activities, and the Extended School Year (ESY) program, a collaboration between the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center and the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) to provide social interaction and functional communication instruction for elementary-age children with autism.

The UI also partners with ICCSD special education teachers to plan programming for elementary-age children with autism for a five-week period. The graduate students in the speech-language pathology program plan lessons and activities that help children better recognize and regulate their emotional level, understand that their words and actions can impact the emotions and thoughts of others; help children positively engage in play, such as taking turns and respecting the personal space of others; and help children participate in small group activities.

Despite her myriad activities—she also works with the Autism Society and advises the China Project, a UI mission effort—Delsandro still thinks about the child on her school bus from time to time and hopes someone helped her discover her strengths and succeed.

“We need to strengthen the abilities and confidence of children with autism spectrum disorders, and simultaneously increase the awareness and acceptance of individuals with autism spectrum disorders in their peers,” Delsandro says. “It can happen, we simply need to continue to work together as a community.”