Her Work On Autism Goes On

Dr. Diane Cullinane and husband Bill (left) share one of the city’s Image Awards, presented by Mayor Bob Joe at Sunday’s “Crunch Time” dinner at the War Memorial Building. Diane Cullinane recently retired from the Professional Child Development Associates in Pasadena but plans to continue her research into autism. Photo by Henk Friezer

IF ever there was a time to focus on autism, it is now.

Dr. Diane Cullinane, the recently retired co-founder of the Professional Child Development Associates (PCDA) in Pasadena, told me the other day that one in 59 children born in the United States has autism.

It occurs most often in boys, she said.

“And that number is increasing dramatically,’’ said Cullinane, a South Pasadena resident. “Not only in America, but all over the world. The incidence is high, crazy-high.

“To a young couple considering having a baby, these facts can be very worrisome.’’

I first met Cullinane at Sunday’s “Crunch Time” party fundraiser at the War Memorial Building, where she and her husband Bill shared one of three Image Awards, which recognize longtime South Pasadena residents and leaders.

We sat down the next day to talk about her career dealing with autism, and the PCDA, located at 620 N. Lake St. in Pasadena.

Cullinane explained that there is no known cause for autism, which she defines as a developmental challenge on social interaction that becomes apparent early in a person’s life.

Autism is not a one-size-fits-all issue. There is a spectrum of how it can present itself — from eye contact, sharing attention, verbal communication, speech or unusual response to sound, light or touch.

“You can only tell where a person is at a particular time,’’ she said.

It is never too early to seek help, Cullinane said. In fact, it’s better to ask than to avoid.

The good news is that there are ways to help.

Cullinane just retired from the Pasadena center, which she co-founded 23 years ago, and which provides a wide range of services to children and young adults from birth to age 21. The center currently has a staff of 85 and serves more than 1,000 a year.

Parents should also use as a resource the regional center in Alhambra of the Department of Developmental services. The center, located at 1000 S. Fremont Avenue, is a state service available to anyone with a diagnosis of autism.

Cullinane explained that there is a lot of controversy about treatment of autism. One method is called “behavioral,’’ which is where children are taught to follow commands and to perform specific skills.

The other method, used by Cullinane, is the “developmental’’ approach, which has its focus on relationships. The goal is to learn through people who are special to the patient’s life — parents or friends.

“The most important thing is to get treatment early,’’ she said. “It is never too late to build skills to become successful.

“In the developmental approach, we stress relationships that establish a sense of caring. We involve people in things that they are good at or are interested in.

“Some children are going to need more support than others, but the goal is going to be to make them happy and successfully fully engaged in life.’’

Cullinane graduated in 1980 from the Baylor College of Medicine. She is a  developmental pediatrician, board certified in pediatrics and neurodevelopmental disabilities. She has worked in a variety of settings, including a managed-care medical practice, the L.A. Unified School District and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

She has lectured at 100 conferences and has written a book, “Behavioral Challenges in Children with Autism and Other Special Needs: The Developmental Approach.’’

One of the reviewers of the book, who was unsigned, wrote in 2017, “Dr. Cullinane has worked with my daughter since she was two. Her expertise was wholly unparalleled, even among the incredible variety of specialists we’ve worked with in the field of child development. All of her predictions came to pass, and she helped us avoid what would have been some limiting diagnosis.

“Dr. Cullinane has helped us keep our girl feeling challenged, understanding and empowered, which has led us to a two-year ‘blossoming’ that has wowed our other specialists (many of whom have begun using Dr. Cullinane’s evaluations as a guide for themselves.)’’

There is much more public awareness of  autism than there was 30 years ago. The problem now is funding and having trained staff.

For Cullinane, retirement from the PCDA means continuing to preach the gospel of developmental treatment. She wants to write another book and do more lecturing.

From, my perspective, Cullinane clearly summarized the developmental process in a 2016 article she wrote called “The DIR Model Approach to Behavioral Problems in Children.’’

“The capacity for warmth and emotional attunement is present in all parents, professionals and adult caregivers, but it is often discouraged,’’ she wrote. “There is a need to reframe our thinking about children so that nurturance of the emotional life of the child is upheld as a priority, particularly for children with special needs.

“For adults with autism, the outcomes of developmentally based interactions can mean the difference between isolation and successful social integration.’’

My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.