Dr. Diane Cullinane
Co-Founder and Executive director of Professional Child Development Associates (Pcda)
Category of Humanitarian Benefit: Health and Medical
Short Biography/Background of the Nominee: Dr. Diane Cullinane is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Professional Child Associates (PCDA), a non-profit agency in Pasadena, California. Dr. Cullinane is a leading advocate, trainer and practitioner of DIR (developmental, individual, relationship-based) intervention for children with developmental challenges.
Dr. Cullinane attended Stanford University and then received an M.D. at Baylor College of Medicine. She continued her medical studies at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco and at UCLA, specializing in Pediatrics and Child Development. She is board-certified in Pediatrics and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and holds a certificate at the expert level in DIR.
Prior to starting PCDA, Dr. Cullinane worked in many settings providing care to children with special needs, including LA Unified School District, private practice, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Lanterman Regional Center. After observing the challenges that families encountered in receiving care, she was inspired to begin a new agency that could provide integrated and comprehensive services for children and families.
Dr. Cullinane and co-founder Mimi Winer gathered an exceptional professional team, and together they created numerous innovative service-models to help children with autism and other developmental disabilities. At the same time, Dr. Cullinane was learning about a revolutionary new treatment approach, called DIR, and embraced that as the framework for PCDA. PCDA is now a leading agency in utilizing this method and not only provides services to thousands of children and families, but also advocates for DIR and provides training to parents and professionals.
In addition to her as Executive Director, Dr. Cullinane provides clinical supervision, as well as presenting trainings for colleagues and parents nationally and internatonally. Dr. Cullinane is author of Behavioral Challenges in Children with Autism and Other Special Needs: The Developmental Approach (W.W.Norton). She serves on the board of The Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting each person's development to their fullest potential through the promotion of DIR, and she works with local and state policymakers to advocate for increased access to services for children with disabilities. Dr. Cullinane is a recognized leader among her colleagues as both a practitioner and advocate for children with developmental disabilities, and specifically the DIR approach to treatment.
Dr. Cullinane also serves on the school board of Holy Family School of South Pasadena. She is married to William Cullinane, and they are the proud parents of Scott and Sara.
Project Name and Description: Professional Child Development Associates (PCDA) is a non-profit agency in Pasadena, CA, that provides a wide range of professional services for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. All of the services at PCDA utilize the DIR approach. This evidence-based approach has three basic principles: (1) that a child learns through effective meaningful interactions with others; (2) that each child has unique sensory, motor, and regulatory profiles, and that interventions are most effective when they are tailored to the child's individual differences; and (3) that development follows a universal hierarchy building from shared attention to warm engagement, reciprocal interactions, co-regulated shared problem solving, emotional ideas and ultimately to logical, reflective and abstract thinking.
Thirty years ago very little was understood about autism, and there were very few services available for children with autism or other disabilities. Today, the incidence of autism is 1 in 58 children. While there are more services available for children with disabilities, families are still faced with many obstacles in determining the best treatment for their child and how to find and access that treatment. Families are confronted with differences among professionals about what constitutes an “evidence-based” treatment and what interventions would be best suited for their child. PCDA offers an important resource in the community for those children and families. Professional Child Development Associates (PCDA) was started by Dr. Cullinane in 1996 as an independent clinic to bring together professionals who were interested in utilizing the most advanced, scientifically supported methods of treatment possible. This included the principles of working closely with parents, working across disciplines, and focusing on a child's emotional development. Under the leadership of Dr. Cullinane, innovative services were created for the first time using the developmental, relationship-based framework of DIR. PCDA has created a wide range of innovative therapy services and programs for children with autism and other developmental challenges; some these services include: Interdisciplinary Feeding Team, play-based social skills groups that revolve around children's natural play interactions, a Teen Club socialization program, creative arts programs, and many others. PCDA provides services to over 1,000 children with special needs each year throughout Los Angeles County and the San Gabriel Valley, and Dr. Cullinane is in high demand as a practitioner for her assessment and diagnostic skills. DIR is profoundly different than other treatment approaches, which are used more commonly. DIR is primarily concerned with developing warm, trusting relationships between a child and their parents, and building from this foundation to reach a child's highest potential for communication, empathy, and reasoning. There is a consistent focus on a child's emotional life and social-emotional development, and their individual differences, while also teaching other specific skills. While this approach is radically different than traditional command and consequence models, the results are measurable and deeply meaningful.
When PCDA began, the DIR approach was being utilized by only a handful of providers in the area, and was not well accepted in the field. Through determination to overcome challenges, and a firm belief in the effectiveness of this approach, Dr. Cullinane has been a significant force in expanding the acceptance and availability of DIR based interventions. PCDA continues to grow its clinical practice and serves as a model for the effective implementation of multidisciplinary DIR programs. In addition, Dr. Cullinane has been an important leader in increasing the understanding and acceptance of developmentally oriented practice, and specifically DIR.
Humanitarian Benefit: PCDA’s mission under Dr. Cullinane’s leadership is to help children with autism and other developmental challenges increase their capacity for communication, problem-solving, creativity and reflective thinking, and engage in joyful interactions and warm relationships with family and friends. The DIR model is essentially a humanitarian model, founded on the idea that all people are worthy of respect and dignity. Intervention begins with a sensitive and compassionate understanding of individual difference in thought, appearance and behavior. With that attunement, perceptions can shift from being pejorative with a focus on eliminating unwanted behaviors, to admiration for an individual’s strength, talents and abilities, regardless of developmental differences. This perspective applies both to the effected child and to the strengths and constrictions of parents and caregivers in their efforts to help their child.
On a weekly basis, PCDA’s staff of 80+ professionals provide services to hundreds of children. Each child and family receives individualized services, all based on the DIR approach. The outcomes are profoundly important for everyone served. At the most basic level, parents and children have experiences of trust and enjoyment in being together; they have more success in communicating their thoughts and feelings to each other; children learn to initiate interactions and to engage with others, to help manage difficult feelings, and to become flexible, creative, sensitive and thoughtful.
All of the interactions between staff and parents and children are based on building understanding and communication of emotional experience. This humanitarian approach minimizes the use of directives and external rewards, and instead relies on the internal human motivation to gain intimacy, shared attention, pleasure and support. Through the DIR services at PCDA, parents successfully connect with their children, sometimes for the first time in months or years.
Making the difference in a child’s capacity for social engagement and their ability to regulate their emotions and behavior is the most important factor for their future happiness. Quality of life, opportunities for work, and enjoyment of leisure time correspond to these social-emotional capacities. By learning to connect with their child, value their child’s interests, and understand and interpret their child’s behavior, parents are empowered to better guide their child’s development, resulting in short-term and long-term benefits for the child and family. PCDA also provides services focused on peer relationships. At PCDA, children with autism often have their first true friendships. These experiences with family and peers prepare a child for lifelong success. Parents are typically effusive in expressing their gratitude for being included in their child’s sessions, for the coaching they receive from our caring and responsive experts, and for the progress that they see in their child.
In addition to the children and families served directly, PCDA has had a significant impact on the quality of care for children with autism and other disabilities more broadly. In addition to direct services, PCDA under Dr. Cullinane’s supervision, provides training to professionals in many fields. Over the years, Dr. Cullinane has trained hundreds of clinicians in DIR, who now carry forward this knowledge to serve in other communities locally, across the country and internationally.
The DIR framework is wholly humanitarian in the perspective that is respects and values every individual, regardless of abilities, and in the high value placed on trusting, honest, and effectively rich relationships. In DIR, there is a consistent focus on building and sustaining pleasurable and mutually supportive interactions. By enacting Dr. Cullinane’s innovating model of creating and using innovative service models in multiple disciplines based on the DIR approach, PCDA is an important resource for families, and a leader in developmental, effectively based programs. Through advocacy efforts for DIR programs and services, and contributing to the professional literature, Dr. Cullinane has been an important and impactful leader in services to children with autism and other developmental challenges.