Empowering Families

Amy Wetherby’s esteemed career focuses on not just the clients, but their families and their role.

When Amy Wetherby reflects on what it is that has driven her acclaimed research and work at Florida State University, it basically comes down to one guiding principle: “Everything we do now is about family,” she says.  

She admits that when she first arrived in Tallahassee, her first job after graduating, she did not envision what would be in store for her. “I figured I’d eventually move on—and I’m still here 36 years later.” 

Since then, she has become a leading figure in autism and early intervention research and left a major impact on the field and on campus. This includes the founding of the university’s Autism Institute in 2008, of which she is the director. Prior to that, she established the renowned FIRST WORDS Project.

But it all started with getting her ASHA certification, which she says she got as soon as she could in order to do clinical work. “I always wanted to get my CCCs—I never considered not getting them,” Amy says. “I saw them as very valuable.”

Establishing the FIRST WORDS Project

When she created the FIRST WORDS Project, the initial objective for her and her team was to identify children with communication delays, but that quickly grew to include more. 

“We realized while looking for communication delays that we were finding children with autism, so our mission expanded to find children with not only communication delays, but autism under 2 years old,” she says.

Since they first began the project 15 years ago, they have screened more than 30,000 children, starting in the Florida panhandle and expanding to Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, and more. Over that time, they have identified approximately 500 children with autism in their early years. As a result of early intervention, they have been able to offer help to families to address the needs of many children much earlier.

“We really have an eye on catching it by 18 months,” she says. “If we can begin early intervention by 18 months, most children with early signs of autism are able to learn to talk and their nonverbal IQs are within normal limits by the time they go to school.”

An important part of the mission is coaching families on how to help their children. 

“We developed a treatment model to coach parents,” Amy says. “It teaches them how to treat their child when they’re babies and toddlers because if you catch it early, then parents can play an important role.” Parents not only spend the most time with their children but are also often a child’s first teacher. Though Amy stresses that working with an SLP is important and helpful, she notes what is done at home will always exceed the time spent in a professional’s office. Because of this, Amy notes that SLPs can help parents of a child with autism learn various techniques and practices, including how to capture the child’s attention, so that their child has the opportunity to learn in everyday activities with their family. 

Through her work, she’s developed materials ranging from videos to “lookbooks” to help parents recognize the signs of autism, as well as scripts and methods to support families who may not know how to approach the matter with a doctor or what questions to ask.

“Just not saying anything doesn’t make it go away,” Amy says. “It’s things that you could easily dismiss, but they’re there, and they get bigger and can seem more daunting as the child gets older if you don’t get earlier intervention.”

Bringing Her CCCs to the Research

Amy cannot imagine getting to this point in her career without her ASHA certification. She credits it with the positive results for families of her groundbreaking work. “What I learned from my CCCs—and continue to learn—I’ve brought and bring to my research,” she says.  

As a testament to this, to recognize her accomplished career and for the role her certification has played in her research, Amy was recently named a 2018 ASHA Honors of the Association Award recipient.

In May, ASHA also announced that its Identify the Signs campaign will be partnering with her Baby Navigator resource. Developed by her and her FIRST WORDS Project and Autism Navigator teams, Baby Navigator provides a variety of online tools for parents and professionals to track a child’s social communication development while also identifying early signs of autism.

Between carrying out the values of her CCCs as well as her appreciation for the importance of the family, everything over the course of Amy’s career can be attributed to a simple, overarching goal. 

“It’s about teaching families how to interact with their child with autism so they can support their child’s social communication development, and then how to prevent or manage behavior that can be challenging for them,” she says.