Pioneer in Autism Care

April 4th, 2012

Donald Oswald

Psychologist Donald Oswald '75 sits among toys often used at Commonwealth Autism Service as part of the assessment and diagnosis process.

When Donald Oswald graduated with a major in psychology in 1975, he got a job working at the Grafton School in Berryville, Virginia, which was then (and remains) an organization known nationally for serving children and adults with disabilities and significant emotional and/or behavioral challenges.

Oswald had been there a year before he saw his first child with autism. What began as a trickle became a flood of autism cases over the next nine years into Grafton. Oswald eventually found himself running a group home for teens with autism.

Thinking he would branch out into general child psychology, in 1985 Oswald entered the clinical psychology doctoral program at Virginia Tech. Four years later, he interned at the Yale Child Study Center, a leader in the autism field.

When the Medical College of Virginia was looking to fill a faculty position for a psychologist in 1990, Oswald believes he got the job because of his experience with autistic children, though he was a recent doctoral graduate.

He’s been focused on autism ever since. In 1998, he was named to the board of directors of Commonwealth Autism Service, newly founded and funded by Virginia’s General Assembly. It is the primary center in the state for school and public safety workers to receive training in how to deal with autistic individuals.

Oswald advocates a multi-disciplinary approach to assessment, involving a speech therapist, occupational therapist, education expert, psychologist, and child psychiatrist. Asked why five experts were needed, Oswald explained: “A speech therapist might be able to recognize that a child was ‘oppositional’ because he didn’t understand the language we were using, while an occupational therapist might detect that a child was hypersensitive to lights and sounds. An educational therapist can help the school to think about how to work with the child. A psychologist can run the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, and a psychiatrist can prescribe medication.”

Oswald added that parents should be “engaged as equal partners and treated with dignity and respect, with their views incorporated in the treatment plan.”

He applauded the establishment of Spectrum Transformation Group under Cedric Moore ’99, MBA, to meet families’ desperate need for “high quality, comprehensive, behaviorally based, in-home support service.”

Today Oswald is the Director of Diagnostics and Research at Commonwealth Autism Service. He has retired from full-time teaching in the department of psychiatry at the Medical College of Virginia, but continues to consult widely.