Meet Dr. Cecilia M.
Dr. Cecilia M.
This is not a profession or a job for me. It is a commitment.
Dr. Cecilia M., a bilingual clinical psychologist from Maracaibo, Venezuela, has long been passionate about serving the Hispanic and Latino autism community. From the time she was 17, she knew she wanted to work with underserved families—and her dedication has only grown alongside her career.
After completing her master's degree in Baltimore and her Ph.D. in Venezuela, Cecilia returned to the U.S. in 2015 to begin her work as an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Through her research and community outreach efforts, she is working to close the gap in access to services in her majority Latino community in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
In this Q&A, read how Cecilia is making a difference for Latino families in the U.S. and abroad.
What motivates you to work with the Latino autism community?
In 2019, I moved to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), which sits along the Mexican border with a 91% Latino population. Unfortunately, services are not readily available for Latino parents of autistic children living in the RGV. Residents of the RGV face many issues when accessing services. Some are due to socioeconomic status, as we have one of the poorest counties in the country. Others are related to lack of awareness, not having enough trained professionals, or in the case of undocumented immigrants, being afraid of deportation. In addition, there is a lack of services and resources in Spanish for those Latino parents who do not speak English.
I feel a strong connection and commitment to this community because even though we are in the United States, the inequalities in accessing care are monumental in this region. In an attempt to lessen some of those barriers, we are studying if translated screening questionnaires like the M-CHAT are reliable and effective for Spanish parents. Last April, we also released a video podcast series called Habla Autismo to raise awareness about autism among parents in the RGV. The podcast episodes included parents of autistic children, health professionals talking about autism symptoms and diagnosis, and school personnel explaining to parents how to access services at school.
Can you tell me about your work?
We currently have several projects in the Behavior and Child Development Lab. One of them is studying the impact of being raised in a bilingual environment on language development in autistic children. It is common for professionals to tell bilingual parents of autistic children that they have to speak to their children in English because their school activities are in English. However, sometimes parents don't speak good English, which decreases the child's communication opportunities with their family. We hope our findings will aid in developing best practice guidelines for raising an autistic child in bilingual environments.
Since 2016, I have also been involved in the Caregivers Skills Training program, or CST. I have worked with teams in different countries ( Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and many other places in Latin America) to help them implement the program in their communities. At present, another of our lab’s projects is developing a culturally adapted version of the CST to be implemented with the Spanish-speaking community in the RGV and across the U.S.
Besides that, I belong to the Latin American Autism Spectrum Network (REAL for its Spanish acronym), which is a network of professionals and researchers in eight countries in Latin America. As a REAL member, I participate in projects exploring the needs of caregivers of autistic individuals in different Latin American countries.
The REAL network has brought information about autism in Latin America to the frontline. We have published around seven articles in the last two years with my students based on data from the REAL network. In one of our studies, we found that almost 20% of children with autism had never received services in their lifetime. And as they grow older, those numbers grow. By publishing this research, we are giving families in Latin America data to take to the government and advocate for funding and more services.
What has been the biggest impact of your work?
As a professor, I think that capacity building is one of the most significant impacts my work has on people in the RGV. As part of their coursework and participation in the research projects, students are trained in autism assessment and intervention. Their training is not just in clinical skills but what autism means for Latino people and people living in underserved communities. As a result, we are building a new generation of culturally sensitive professionals. The research projects also offer diagnostic and intervention services for Spanish-speaking families at no cost. By doing so, the community is aware that the university wants to bring services to the autistic community in the Valley.
Outside the U.S., with the REAL network, we are giving a voice to caregivers in Latin America about what it's like to have a child with autism in a Latin American country. Before we started these projects, there were few scientific publications about autism in Latin America. If you looked at autism worldwide, it looked like we didn't have autism in our countries. And that was not true. The truth was that we didn't have publications because it is hard to do research in Latin America.
What led you to this passion of working with families that have a loved one with autism?
Even when I was living in Venezuela, I always wanted and did work with underserved populations. For me, having a child with any disability is enough for any family. I don't think that it is fair for them to think that because they are poor or they don't speak the language, they cannot give their child the best services. We want to bring hope and evidence-based practices to these families. If we have any privilege, we have to share it with the ones who don't have it.
My main mission in life is to bring top-notch assessment and interventions to people who do not have access—because they deserve it. The ones who know about autism—the ones who have Internet and are literate and know about child development—don't need me. They're going to find a way. We need to get services for those who don't know what is happening to them. I live in a place that is in need of so many things. This is not a profession or a job for me. It is a commitment.
How does your culture affect your point of view and give you an advantage in this work?
I envision that what we are doing here in this particular corner of the world could help isolated Latino communities in places like Utah or Wyoming. We are collecting information that can inform practices for Latino families with autistic children. The people doing this work are little spots in this huge country, but we care for the Latino community. We’re passionate because we are Latino. We can understand what is going on and what these families are feeling, even if we don’t have autistic families ourselves. We are academics and researchers, but we care and we are trying to improve the quality of life of these families while infusing those values and a caring attitude in our students.