Alumna Colleen Allen dedicates career to helping those with autism reach their greatest potential

Dr. Colleen Allen
Colleen Allen

The name Colleen Allen holds more than little weight in the autism community in Michigan. Chosen as one of Crain’s 2021 100 Most Influential Women, she is the president and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM).

Allen holds a bachelor’s from the University of Michigan, a master’s from Boston University, a Ph.D. ‘98 in speech-language pathology from Wayne State University, and even taught master’s-level courses in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders as an adjunct professor, a position she held until 2014.

“I didn’t pursue the traditional route in research or hospital administration with my Ph.D.,” Allen said, “but I would have never had the opportunities I did without Wayne State.”

She began her 20-year (and counting) career as a speech pathologist at Henry Ford Health System. The work bolstered her interest in children with autism, but more than a decade into her career, Allen couldn’t help but feel the system was failing them.

“I got frustrated, because I would build these relationships with these families and was pretty skilled at identifying those early red flags for autism,” Allen said, “but speech pathologists cannot diagnose a child—that’s the responsibility of a neurologist or a psychologist. I would refer these patients over to neurology and within a quick 10-minute observation, they would unravel all that I had built in the understanding of autism with the family.”

She knew the hospital required a more multidisciplinary approach when it came to the care of patients on the spectrum, and her colleagues agreed. In 2008, Allen founded and became the first director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CADD). Not long after CADD was created, Allen sought to expand its services from diagnostic to therapeutic, but families couldn’t afford the care, therapies for autism were not covered by insurance or Medicaid.

Allen teamed up with the newly created nonprofit AAoM, and together they led the statewide effort along with other stakeholders including universities, hospitals and business leaders, to pass autism insurance laws in 2012. It was then AAoM asked Allen to come onboard as president and CEO. Then in 2014, she worked with state department leadership to add Medicaid coverage for similar treatments.

Care across the lifespan

“Early intervention is 100 percent critical,” Allen said. “One of our primary goals is to reduce the age of diagnosis and access to services. In Michigan, the average age of diagnosis right now is somewhere near 5 and 6 years old, when a kid gets to school. All the years before that are missed, and it truly is a lost opportunity for a lifetime.”

The brain is still developing until a child reaches the age of 5. Those first few years are crucial when early intervention can improve basic skills such as communication, critical thinking, emotional well-being, sometimes to the point children with autism can enter regular education, Allen said. 

“It’s very much a process, autism is never cured. The social challenges will follow a person through the lifespan. That’s how we get 28-year-old engineers who have two degrees but don’t have the social skills to survive in the workplace.”

Navigator, AAoM’s call team, takes thousands of calls and cases each year, from concerned parents looking for resources, healthcare providers looking to improve much-need support, employers searching for specialized training, and adults on the spectrum looking for jobs.

Since its inception, over 45,000 families have been connected to and benefited from the work of AAoM. Those are thousands of people who have experienced greater opportunities for a lifetime of independence.

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