Community Conversations: An Interview with Dr. Michael Alessandri, the Executive Director of UM-NSU CARD (University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities)
I am deeply grateful and excited to introduce you to Dr. Michael Alessandri, whose list of qualifications and accomplishments are amazing and impossible to quantify. He is the Executive Director of UM-NSU CARD (the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities), and just celebrated his 25th anniversary there this year. Aside from being an amiable, thoughtful, reliable, caring, and selfless person; and being a devoted, humble, tireless, driven, ceaselessly working, and exemplary servant leader; Dr Alessandri possesses multiple academic and professional degrees.
Dr. Alessandri has worked with individuals with autism and their families since 1981 in various capacities. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Rochester and obtained his MS and Ph.D. in Psychology from Rutgers University. Dr. Alessandri is also Clinical Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics and serves as the Department of Psychology’s Assistant Chairman for Community Outreach and Engagement.
He has received numerous community service awards, including the Autism Society of America’s Wendy F. Miller Autism Professional of the Year Award and National Autism Program of the Year for UM-NSU CARD. He is also the recipient of the March of Dimes Community Excellence in Health Care Award (2007), the Health Services Coalition Outstanding Community Leader Award (2009), and the Parent to Parent Excellence in Family Advocacy Award (2010). Dr. Alessandri was also named one of the Ronald McDonald House’s 12 Good Men (2008) and the Dewar’s 12 Man of Distinction (2007). In 2012, he was selected by the Children’s Trust as the David Lawrence Champion for Children, one of South Florida’s highest honors for community service. In 2016, Dr. Alessandri was named the Visionary Leader of the Year by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce; and in 2017, he was recognized by the Dade County Bar Association with the Fostering Inclusion and Diversity Award. For more information about Dr. Alessandri please click here.
I have known Dr. Alessandri for 25+ years. I met him through UM-NSU CARD when I was a child (7-8 years old), and I have had the chance as an adult to work with him when I was a constituency board member for UM-NSU CARD (between 2011 and 2017). He was also my professor when I was at UM; I took his course about Abnormal Psychology. However, most importantly, I admire him and consider him a role model and a dear friend.
Going forward, I only have great things to say about him. I am certain that after this interview you will love him as much as I do!
Without further ado, here is Dr. Michael Alessandri:
You are one of the most important people in South Florida’s autism community. What was your education like? How did you get connected to the University of Miami and its autism community in the early years? Did you always intend to work with people with autism?
Thank you for saying that. I have worked very hard for many years to serve this community well and I appreciate very much appreciate all the love and support I receive. As to my education, I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1985 from the University of Rochester. Interestingly, just this week I was told I have been named the Distinguished Alumnus of 2022 which was quite the surprise. Following graduation, I enrolled in a PhD program in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University where I continued to focus on my passion of working with individuals with autism, a passion which began in the summer after my high school graduation. I met a boy with autism at a summer camp where I was working, and it lit a fire in me that has never faded….41 years later 😊
After receiving my PhD, I took a faculty position at San Jose State University. While working there as a full-time professor, I also worked part-time at the Stanford University autism clinic where I was involved in diagnostic assessments of children with autism. Serendipitously, I met Dr. Diane Adreon at an Autism Society of America Conference in Las Vegas in 1994. She told me that she had just opened an autism center at the U, and I was quite intrigued. We decided to keep in touch and two years later she contacted me about possibly coming to UM to work at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). I was delighted to have the opportunity to work with Diane and also Dr. Peter Mundy whose autism research I knew well. I took a leave of absence from San Jose State for one year with the intent of returning, but that one-year experiment has turned into a 26 year and counting career-defining move.
What attracted you to UM’s CARD program? What were your first years there like? What were your earliest initiatives?
When I started my first faculty position in California, I always had the dream of starting a university-based autism center, and in fact, opened a program called San Jose State University Center for Autism Research Education and Services (SJSU CARES). While we had some initial success, it proved quite difficult within that university to do all that I wanted to do to serve the community. So, the opportunity to help build and grow CARD at the University of Miami was quite exciting. As for my first years here, I must say they were not easy. I was a young, confident, and somewhat brash (my New York upbringing I’m sure) young man at the time. I was not well known and certainly not well understood by some. I immediately had the support of my colleagues at CARD and of many of our families, but some in the professional community had their doubts about me and were not terribly welcoming to be honest. The more I felt folks wanted me to go back to California, the more I was determined to stay and prove them wrong. I had a vision for what I thought South Florida could be for people with autism, and I was not going to be deterred. I also told my team in the beginning that we were not just building an autism center, but we were building an autism community and we needed to think big and be bold in the way we approached our work. I guess you can say that I had a clear vision and a surprising level of confidence in those days.
Some of my earliest initiatives involved strategic partnerships that I knew would have impact. We worked carefully on expanding our board which I knew would be important for our ability to sustain our efforts. We partnered with local foundations, most notably the Dan Marino Foundation, to expand our services into Broward County. And I relied heavily on the wisdom and professional guidance of one of my great friends and personal heroes, Dr. Roberto Tuchman, who believed in me from the first day he met me. We shared a vision of having CARD services within the Dan Marino Center in Weston and with the partnership of the Dan Marino Foundation, we were able to make that happen for many years.
Who/what inspires you? What gives you motivation and strength? What are your favorite things about your work? What gives you fulfillment on the job?
My inspiration and fulfilment come from the individuals with autism and their families. I have devoted my whole adult life and career to them, and they inspire me to be better and do better each and every day. I’m also inspired by my team of deeply dedicated professionals who never stop striving in their efforts to better serve our community. I know the daily impact we have on the actual lives of the people we serve. I see it firsthand. I also find motivation in the journey. Because I have been here for 26 years, I have the vantage point of knowing where we started, and I can see where we are now, and the change has been monumental. But there is also motivation in knowing how much more good and important work we have ahead of us. New frontiers of service provision reveal themselves every day. For example, we are deeply committed to enhancing employment opportunities for our adult clients, and I personally have become involved in trying to facilitate affordable housing options for adults as well.
Tell me about CARD’s annual event, “Tropical Nights”. How did that get started? What was the first Tropical Nights like?
I believe we will be having our 19th Tropical Nights this December 2022. This all started thanks to two remarkable angels in my life, Marie-Ilene Whitehurst and the late Michelle Cruz. Marie-Ilene, Michelle and I were definitely the three amigos for so many positive initiatives in South Florida. One of those was the inaugural Walk FAR for NAAR, only the second autism walk-a-thon in the nation at that time. We were wildly successful in bringing the community together and raising money for that event that we wondered if we could do the same for CARD, which was and continues to be relatively underfunded. So, the three of us, with the help of a team of parents and friends of CARD launched the annual Tropical Nights event, and it has been a game-changer for CARD in that it has allowed us to sustain and grow our operations even in times of great financial distress for the program. That first event set the tone for all that would follow. It was a gorgeous outdoor affair at the home of Michelle Cruz, who also co-chaired that first event with her sister-in-law Patricia Cruz, and of course, the amazing Marie-Ilene Whitehurst.
What are your most favorite personal/professional awards and accomplishments?
I have been so blessed in the recognition I have received although I must say none of the wonderful awards presented to me would be at all possible without the support of my team. The leader of the organization always gets way more attention than he or she deserves but I am forever grateful for any opportunity to highlight our collective work, and awards certainly allow for that. I do, of course, have a few favorites to share. The first is an award named after one of my heroes, David Lawrence, Jr., who is simply the most remarkable child advocate I have ever known. To have an award in his name (The David Lawrence, Jr. Champion of Children Award presented by The Children’s Trust) and to have him in my life as a friend and mentor, is perhaps the greatest gift I have ever received. I was also thrilled to receive the Visionary Leader of the Year Award (2016) by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Distinguished Alumnus Award (2022) by the University of Rochester. These two mean so much to me because they demonstrate that people who are not necessarily living in my work world are noticing my contributions, and that means so very much to me in terms of the impact I always hoped that I would have on the world.
What do you do for fun? What makes you happy? Do you have any hobbies? What do you do on the rare occasion when you are not working?
I do work quite a lot, but I have learned to make time for me as well. I have a wonderful private life filled with love and many meaningful friendships. Spending time with loved ones is a highlight of most of my weeks. My husband I enjoy traveling most of all, and we have been fortunate in that we have seen much of the world. Our favorite annual destination is Paris, but we also spend considerable time in Lima, Peru (his home country) and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where we are fractional owners of a lovely penthouse apartment with beautiful and relaxing mountain and ocean views. Unsurprisingly, given our love of travel is our love of food. We are fortunate to be able to eat out at so many of Miami’s fine dining establishments with Joe’s Stone Crab being like a second home for us. We actually had our wedding reception there and will cherish that experience for the rest of our lives. A few others near our home in Miami Beach that your readers simply must visit that also feel like home for us are Sardinia, Rosinella, and Issabella’s. I am also a new fan of Luca Osteria near my office in Coral Gables.
What have your experiences in the autism community taught you about autism itself? What do you believe the future holds for people with autism – children, but especially adults?
I think the future is bright for the autism community, but we have much work to do, particularly for adults. There is so much potential, but it will, as they say, take a village to accomplish all that is needed. It is no longer sufficient for the autism community alone to be working to create a better world for people with autism. We need to bring in stakeholders from the broader community to understand the value for all in making space for people with autism at every table: government, employment, housing, higher education, social, recreational, etc. We are all working it seems on too small a scale….one person at a time, one business at a time, one state at a time simply won’t allow us to accomplish what we need to achieve. The scale of need is far too great to continue to approach it in this way.
What are the most important misconceptions about autism that need to be addressed, to make society more inclusive toward people with autism and people with disabilities in general?
There are still so many unfortunate misconceptions about autism, but the topic I would like to address here is the failure of the autism community and broader society to address the needs of those with profound autism. It seems the stories of the most vocal, successful and accomplished autistic individuals are more interesting to the media and society at large. But we have families that are struggling, suffering, even dying in silence. And we are all to blame….me and others like me included. We have to do more to highlight this side of the autism story as well as those feel-good stories if we ever hope to stimulate systems-change for those most in need. These families are isolated and alone with limited support and no end of their daily struggle in sight.
Who would you like to acknowledge/shoutout/promote/thank for their involvement in your life and how they helped you get to where you are today?
My life is full of remarkable people who have inspired me – far too many to mention here, but a few immediately come to mind. First and foremost, Dr. Roberto Tuchman who saw promise in a young new professional in town and embraced him with open arms. Dr. Tuchman’s support of me during my very difficult early years in South Florida is what allowed me to continue moving forward with my vision for our South Florida autism community. I always say Dr. Gary Mesibov from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was the mentor who had the most influence on my loving and accepting client and family support style. He modeled for me what true autism acceptance means, and I’ll always be grateful. Finally, I must give a shoutout to my best friend Julie Fisher, the Executive Director of the New York Center for Autism Charter Schools in the Bronx and Harlem. Julie and I met at Rutgers in 1988 and have been like brother and sister ever since. She has kept me laughing, she has kept me sane, and she has kept me inspired through her work. The autism charter schools that she runs are truly places of excellence but more importantly, they are places of love. That is what every school, agency, therapy center, and program should aspire to be in my opinion. Anything great in this world of autism must start with love.
INTERVIEWER’S CLOSING NOTES FOR THE READERS
Thank you for your time and readership. I hope you enjoyed this interview. There will be more interviews with more people to come in the near future. Have a great day!