Autism community celebrates ‘rare gem’ Michael Alessandri

Photo credit: Evan Garcia/University of Miami
By Deserae E. del Campo

Photo credit: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

Autism community celebrates ‘rare gem’ Michael Alessandri

By Deserae E. del Campo
The University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities is honoring its executive director for 25 years of service.

Chrissy Buchinski will never forget the day she met Michael Alessandri in March of 2019. Before moving her family from California to Florida, Buchinski and her husband were worried about their son’s cognitive development. “We knew something wasn’t right,” Buchinski recalled.

“While in California, we voiced concerns about his development to the family pediatrician, but we were constantly dismissed. We never received proper explanation for his sensory issues and behavioral functions,” she added.   

When the family moved to South Florida, Chrissy’s son was diagnosed with autism and the family was referred to the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD). There, they met Alessandri, who is now in his 25th year as the executive director.

“From day one, Michael was there to support us. He spent a day observing our son at school and helped provide recommendations for a special therapist. If we had never been referred to UM-NSU CARD, or had not met Michael, our family would have been lost, especially since we were new to South Florida,” said Buchinski.

Alessandri has dedicated his 40-year professional career to helping people with autism, and to show its appreciation the South Florida autism community will honor his 25 years of service to UM-NSU CARD at its annual fundraising event, Tropical Nights, on Dec. 18.

“I have felt such support from the autism community here in South Florida,” said Alessandri, a professor and assistant chairman for community outreach and engagement in the Department of Psychology. “This work plays such a big part of my life that there is no separation between my work life and my personal life. I am also so grateful for the extraordinary team we have here. They are the finest autism professionals in the country.”

Over the past nearly 30 years, UM-NSU CARD has supported and assisted more than 15,000 families affected by autism or a related disability. Families from Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties who join UM-NSU CARD receive step-by-step assistance that includes referrals for speech therapists, behavioral analysts, neurologists, pediatricians, family support groups, and job creation opportunities for adults with autism.

“Michael deserves this recognition,” said Marie-Ilene Whitehurst, co-founder of the Tropical Nights gala and longtime supporter of UM-NSU CARD. He gives so much of himself, and this award shows how much he means to us all. He’s a force of nature, a powerhouse, and a true inspiration.”  

Before joining the University of Miami in 1996, Alessandri was an assistant professor at San Jose University and then served as an associate director of an autism clinic at Stanford University. Looking back, he said he owes his lifelong commitment to helping people with autism to Marlon, a young boy on the spectrum who forever changed his life.

“I met Marlon during the summer that I graduated from high school,” said Alessandri. “He is my first inspiration. After spending just one day with him, he set me on my path and I have to credit him for that.”

Pastor Fuster Jr. remembers meeting Alessandri after his son’s autism diagnosis in 2017 at a Just for Dads support group meeting. “Michael is a rare gem. He provides hope for families who are feeling overwhelmed. Having Michael on your side is like having a mini-army of autism professionals who are there to help you navigate through the process,” Fuster said.

Whitehurst couldn’t agree more. Her son was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and now, at age 29, he works at the UM-NSU CARD office on the Coral Gables campus. “Michael was always the one to recognize that individuals with autism can add value to the workplace, because of their sense of responsibility and consistency,” she said. “He is a life saver for our son and our family.”

Reflecting on UM-NSU CARD’s next 25 years, Alessandri says his biggest goals are to continue to develop strategic partnerships to enhance services for the traditionally underserved, including those with severe autism, and to help create community-based affordable housing so that individuals on the spectrum can live more independently. He is also eager to find creative ways to assist older adults with autism as they reach their 60s, 70s, or 80s.

“UM-NSU CARD should be the first stop for families to go to after a child is diagnosed,” he added. “There should be an automatic referral process from doctors, teachers, state agencies, and the school system. We must close the loop to make sure that no one is lost or left behind. There will always be a role for UM-NSU CARD in creating change in the community and establishing partnerships that are strategic and impactful.”