First published in the Feb. 24 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
Describing in simple terms what Professional Child Development Associates does for children and families might be akin to putting lightning in a bottle.
The PCDA nonprofit has honed intervention programs tailored to the unique challenges and strengths of children with special needs and their families, the results of which have gained worldwide admiration for being “groundbreaking” and “life-changing.”
But perhaps Nazik Amanuiel, PCDA client and mom, best captures the nonprofit’s core therapy approach:
“It’s like magic,” said Amanuiel, who brought her 14-year-old daughter Inanna to PCDA after trying multiple therapies elsewhere. “The way the therapist was able to pull her attention was incredible to me. I learned a lot as well, I had so many resources shared with me, it was a wonderful opportunity to learn.”
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary year, PCDA is championing its Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (“DIR/floortime”) model as a framework that helps clinicians, parents and educators conduct comprehensive assessments and develop intervention programs tailored to the unique challenges and strengths of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and other special needs. PCDA focuses on intervention therapies for the child and their family, relying on the power of human connection to promote self-regulation, engagement and communication.
“We prioritize a parent-mediated or caregiver involved treatment approach, because we know that when the family is better supported, the child thrives. All of our goals are social-emotional development goals versus behavioral,” said PCDA Executive Director Christopher Perri, who took the lead at the nonprofit just weeks before the onset of closures due to COVID-19.
The pandemic brought unique challenges to the therapy-based organization, which boasts of one of the largest “DIR/Floortime” clinics in the world with about 600 client families and 60 clinicians and support staff. Faced with the possibility of shutting down and suspending its services, Perri and his team made the decision early on to pivot into uncharted territory — that of telehealth and virtual therapies.
Many of PCDA’s clients and families are deemed medically fragile, so continuing in-person would alienate some and disrupt ongoing goals. The move was a risk, Perri noted, because the transition had to be flawless and the virtual treatments had to prove effective.
“If we waited out the pandemic we risked failing and closing as an agency because we couldn’t continue to provide services,” he recalled. “We jumped full speed into telehealth and stayed committed to it out of our values of safety, access and equity for our patients and our staff.”
As coronavirus case rates fell and health orders slackened at different points during the pandemic, it was tempting to explore outdoor and limited in-person therapies, Perri noted, but obstacles to access — such as safe, outdoor bathrooms — continued to plague the idea. Furthermore, mask-wearing was a challenge for some of PCDA’s clients with speech or sensory disorders.
“We decided not to bounce between virtual, hybrid and in-person therapy, but instead we stayed a long period in telehealth and worked out the kinks,” he said.
Telehealth came with some unexpected benefits, he emphasized, which some client families now profess to love. It allows any number of family members to participate at once, without having to coordinate rides or navigate traffic across town. And, for the first time, therapists were able to observe patients in the comfort of their own homes, which in some cases, lessened external stresses for them.
It also grounded the nonprofit’s financial foothold, since it was able to provide a continuity of services without interruption, he said, adding, “By staying cautious we also prioritized our job security as a way to ensure provision of services and the long-term sustainability of our organization. We retained all of our employees and the only attrition we’ve seen are those who’ve chosen to leave.”
Perri praised his dedicated staff and clinical director Julie Miller for PCDA’s success rate during the pandemic. Therapists worked in tandem with families to reevaluate goals and move markers farther still.
“Julie’s exceptional leadership as our clinical director during this time has been essential in helping ensure that our innovative multidisciplinary team continues to find ways to involve parents and caregivers in the treatment and focus on the underlying social-emotional development of each client through playful strengths-based interventions that prioritize relationships and connection,” Perri said.
Mom-client Amanuiel praised the PCDA’s well known feeding program, a therapy intervention to help children with oral sensory issues expand their palates.
“Even though we were virtual, it felt like the same thing [as in person],” she said. “[The therapist] asked so many questions about Inanna, and she took her time to get to know her. We all worked together. She gave me the chance to have strategies too.”
PCDA Board Chair Daniel Davila, who came on for a three-year term in January, said he is proud that the nonprofit was able to harness its therapeutic services into teletherapy, despite some resistance that they couldn’t successfully transfer.
“It was a rapid and really effective transition to telemedicine; it’s been more successful than anyone could have imagined,” Davila said. “Christopher and his team mobilized really quickly, and when the delivery and implementation was such a challenge, they critically nailed the implementation and stuck the landing. Christopher had an innate understanding of the seriousness of COVID from the beginning, and they knew if they didn’t commit to virtual there would be families who couldn’t get services.
“That would’ve led to … the critical juncture of child development, when the pandemic was challenging for everybody, but more so for kids with developmental disabilities and their families.”
In celebrating PCDA’s 25th anniversary, Davila said he’d like to better message wherein lies the “magic” of the nonprofit’s approach. The “DIR/Floortime” is rooted in meeting a client where they are and finding their social-emotional connection: “Connection is the most basic human need … When you help a child [find it], the difference is remarkable.” he added, noting that Perri is well suited to oversee this very goal.
“I admire him tremendously for his interpersonal acumen, the clinician side he brings to all of his human relationships. What we’ve done in the brief time of working together is be authentic and share the values around the work and leadership styles of empowerment, transparency and honesty,” he said. “Christopher is thoughtful and conscientious, he tries to plumb the depths of any issue to its fullness, and he is always working to improve himself as a leader.”
PCDA is eager to continue to welcome back its family clientele to its campus, “as safety levels permit” said Perri, and will again return to offering some in-person, individual services next week. It will also continue some form of virtual telehealth for those who prefer it.
Going forward, the licensed clinical social worker also hopes to push the needle more on advocacy work, not just for racial and social justice but for neuro diversity, equity and inclusion, and belonging for all people and populations. Perri also hopes to explore why there aren’t more Black and indigenous family clients, as well as staff, at PCDA: “Clearly there are families who don’t have the context, connection, resources to be plugging into free services from their regional center… but there are families out there who aren’t even getting into the systems of care. Why is that and what can we do about it?”
PCDA will hold its 25th anniversary on May 22 with an outdoors “Moonlight Gala” at the Langham Huntington Hotel. Donations and funds raised will go toward expanding the nonprofit’s reach and offsetting therapeutic costs.