Association News

Published on June 4th, 2018


An Interprofessional Approach to Autism Care

Note: The Centre for Autism Services Alberta was the 2018 recipient of SAC’s Award of Excellence for Interprofessional Collaboration.

By Joanne Fodchuk, MSLP, R.SLP, S-LP(C)

As a speech-language pathologist (S-LP) at the Centre for Autism Services Alberta in Edmonton, I work on an interprofessional team that serves individuals of all ages with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This means that I collaborate with occupational therapists, psychologists, teachers, social workers, physicians and behaviour analysts (or BCBAs) each and every day in my work.

Our services are centered around individuals and families who are impacted by ASD. We work together to create unique support plans based on evidence-informed practice, clinical knowledge and, most importantly, the client’s specific needs and goals.

Across Canada, there is growing discord among professionals in the area of ASD. My social media feeds are filled with messages questioning the role of S-LPs in ASD, our expertise with complex communication disorders and our level of experience working with clients with behavioural challenges. In online forums, S-LPs report an increasing level of stress as well as tension between service providers who are questioning — and even undermining — the role of S-LPs.

Why can my team work together collaboratively, while friction between professionals exists elsewhere?

One reason for this friction might be a lack of understanding regarding the value of each other’s contributions. As professionals, we have distinct — yet overlapping — roles in addressing ASD. Working with people on the autism spectrum is intuitive to S-LPs. Communication challenges — the bread and butter of an S-LP’s education, training and experience — are fundamental to the diagnosis of ASD. Our expertise in assessing and treating communication disorders make us invaluable to any team supporting people with ASD.

Other issues that might be exacerbating the tension between professional groups are government policies and funding formulas. Differences in the allocation of public resources can make it difficult for professionals to work together collegially. At my centre, professionals share the same employer, resources and funding source. Separating the funding for professional groups creates silos, leading to competition for resources and limited collaboration. Ultimately, this takes the focus away from client- and family-centred care, which should be the foundation of all services in ASD.

A final contributor to the discord among professionals might be that we are all trying to determine which approach is the right one, as if somehow individual professions need to lay claim to interventions for people with ASD. In doing so, we risk losing sight of what our purpose is as professionals: to support people on the autism spectrum and their families and help them succeed.

It is time for this friction to end.

It is time for all of us to recognize that we come to the table with a unique set of skills, experience and training and that all of these need to be considered when supporting people with ASD.

It is time for funding policies to support flexible, interprofessional treatment approaches for people with ASD. Individuals and families affected by ASD stand to benefit greatly from the collective wisdom of an interprofessional team. Scientific research has shown that people with ASD are a diverse group. There is no single treatment method or professional that can serve everyone on the autism spectrum.

Instead of arguing over which approach to use or who is right, we should be trying to learn from each other. Let’s combine our efforts and work together — think of what we could accomplish if we spent our time collaborating rather than trying to determine who is ‘right.’

I urge all professional groups involved in autism services to reflect on the reasons you work with individuals and families affected by ASD. For me, I aim to help individuals with ASD to reach their potential. This is an enormous task that I cannot do alone.

I am fortunate to work in an environment that has supported our team to learn about and from each other as professionals. With a philosophical framework that promotes interprofessional collaboration, a provincial funding model that supports shared resources and a focus on client- and family-centered care, we have built strong relationships that foster effective collaboration. This has taken time, patience, openness, communication and, most importantly, a positive attitude from everyone at the table. If we can achieve this, I believe everyone can.


About the Author

Joanne has been with the Centre for Autism Services of Alberta (the Centre) since 2015. Prior to joining the Centre, Joanne worked as a speech-language pathologist for over a decade in community and school paediatrics, in urban and rural areas and in both private and public services.  Joanne is currently the President of the Alberta College of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (ACSLPA).  She has expertise in the areas of autism spectrum disorders, telehealth and social communication.  Joanne has special interests in the areas of interprofessional collaboration, leadership and quality improvement and she continues to pursue education and work experience in these realms as they relate to the profession of speech-language pathology.


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