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PAU Marks Autism Awareness Month with Alumnus Joshua Heitzmann

April 8, 2021

April is Autism Awareness Month. The CDC estimates that approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is a broad range of conditions “characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.”

California was decades ahead of federal legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Action, which was passed in 1990. California’s Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act was passed in 1969 and paved the way for the 21 “regional centers” that serve people with developmental disabilities, including ASD, in Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz Counties. 
Palo Alto University alumnus Joshua Heitzmann, PhD, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at the San Andreas Regional Center, where he evaluates and ultimately determines eligibility for applicants who may require lifelong services and support. The range of services are both wide and deep, including speech and physical therapy, day care or residential placement, and occupational therapy or supported employment, among many other services.
Heitzmann also supports limited conservatorships and serves on the bioethics board in his work at SARC. Clients with severe autism may eventually reach a point where they can neither care for themselves nor have available family members who can help with decisions, including end-of-life care.
“The Regional Centers provide a vast network of supportive services for individuals and families of those with developmental disabilities for the lifetime of the consumer within California,” said Heitzmann. “Our folks are not visible to most people and we want to ensure they have a voice.”
This type of work has been of interest to Heitzmann for a long time. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California San Diego. He was originally heading toward medical school when he enrolled in a Child Disorders course within the Psychology Department. The professor asked the top five students to serve as his teaching assistants. Heitzmann was one of those five and served as a TA for the next two years, eventually making his way to the PAU neuropsychology emphasis in the PhD in Clinical Psychology program.
“The neuropsych program trained me to be comprehensive, precise, and to evaluate people in ways that others cannot. The rigors of training and highly competent and outstanding mentors also contributed to my current level of knowledge,” said Heitzmann.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition with multiple potential causes and no one diagnostic tool can confirm a diagnosis. A comprehensive series of evaluations is necessary across both contexts and developmental stages for accurate diagnoses. Heitzmann references the DSM-5 and then describes the two fundamental, implicit indicators he looks for in his diagnoses: lack of interest or indifference to social contact and lack of initiation connected to social contact. 
He says parents, for example, can ask “Does the child have an interest in human contact or social engagement that is beyond just an activity or a preferred physical item? As in, once the activity is completed, is the individual also done with human contact?” 
Then ask, “If they had the choice between an item or activity and being around another person, does it not matter to the child? That’s a clue there’s indifference with respects to human interaction. And that’s one of the fundamentals of autism spectrum disorder.”
In discussing Autism Awareness Month, Heitzmann points out that people with ASD have a wide range of behaviors that are typically stereotyped. He references stimming: rocking back and forth, flapping one’s hands, or other repetitive movements, as a couple of common stereotypies. We also discussed the colloquial use of the phrase “on the spectrum” to describe people who may not actually meet the DSM-5 criteria for autism. Another term may be “high-functioning,” which is not an actual DSM-5 term.
Heitzmann sees enriching personal and professional potential for PAU students who want to work with people with developmental disabilities. There’s a need in the job market for trained psychologists, but he also notes that “some of the most beautiful moments I’ve had were with people with developmental disabilities.”  
“I don’t need any rewards or compensation,” he said. “To see a family and their child laugh, play, socialize, and be given the necessary support to live a high quality of life…well, that’s all the reward I need. I hope that others understand that a little human kindness can be so meaningful for those who many not even understand that concept, but can understand the way it makes them truly feel.”