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Beyond the Bench: A conversation with Waganesh Zeleke

Expert

Waganesh Zeleke

Associate professor, Duquesne University

Before Waganesh Zeleke moved to the United States in 2008 to earn her doctorate in mental health counseling, she worked as a psychologist in her home country of Ethiopia, sometimes with autistic children. Her experience supporting autistic people and their families in two countries led her to wonder about how cultural views can shape autistic people’s lives, and the lives of those around them.

This curiosity motivates her research as associate professor of counseling, psychology and special education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — work that in May won her the 2020 Cultural Diversity Research Award from the International Society for Autism Research.

Spectrum talked with Zeleke about the questions that drive her research, the journals that fill her home and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected both her personal and professional life.

Spectrum: What questions drive your research?

Waganesh Zeleke: I focus on how systems, context and culture shape our understanding of mental health and wellness in general. When it comes to autism, my agenda explores the diagnosis and prognosis of autism in Africa, with some exploration in Ethiopia and in Zimbabwe.

I embrace the concept of neurodiversity and mindfulness in autism treatment and intervention. My research team and I are interested in exploring how the conceptual understanding of autism as a neurodiversity issue shapes the lives of an individual on the spectrum and their family.

Seeing the spectrum as a diversity issue really shapes the way we treat and create opportunities for individuals on the spectrum or families. This approach recognizes that genetic or other kinds of biological variations are intrinsic to people’s identities, and it respects a person’s sense of self and personhood, as is the case with any other form of diversity.

Instead of focusing on what causes autism, our research focuses on how the cultural understanding of autism — either in the scientific view or in the general community — shapes an individual’s growth and also shapes the practitioner’s view of the spectrum.

I am interested in setting up an approach or a framework that considers the person as a whole rather than focusing on their diagnosis or treating their traits. Part of my work also explores disparities in healthcare in Africa and here in the U.S. — for example, how immigrant children with autism and their families access and utilize healthcare services, and how evidence-based interventions work in different cultures and contexts.

S: Is there anyone whose work you particularly admire?

WZ: I am a big fan of Judy Singer from Australia. She is on the spectrum, and she came up with the term ‘neurodiversity.’ I think that’s very interesting and brings more ideas and perspective into the scientific world.

S: Do you have a mentor?

WZ: Yes, I do. My lifetime mentor — I call her that because I’ve been working with her since 2005 — is this enthusiastic, outstanding woman, Lynne Koester. She’s an emerita professor at the University of Montana. I am also a big beneficiary of the mentorship of Tammy Hughes, John Sommers-Flanagan and Rita Sommers-Flanagan. Of course, when it comes to life mentorship, my husband is a go-to person for cross-checking about my existence.

portrait of Waganesh Zeleke.

S: What does your daytoday schedule look like?

WZ: I start my day with a gratitude practice and a jog for about three miles with my 12-year-old son, if the weather allows. Even though we are social-distancing, we have managed to maintain that habit. Then we come back and I feed him and his 8-year-old sister, and I help them get ready for virtual school. Once they start, I read and sometimes write for 30 to 40 minutes. I reserve the first two hours of my morning for me and my family. I don’t check email. I don’t see a device until I start my workday.

Once I start working, I spend 30 minutes checking email, and then the rest of the day varies. Sometimes my day is filled with meetings and consultations. On other days I teach a couple of classes or do therapy. Otherwise, I am typically working on my research. Some days it could be writing for publication, some days it could be analyzing data. In a typical year, I usually teach five courses, so now I spend a lot of time on Zoom. I teach online. I do consultation online. I also do telemedicine therapy for clients and do research online.

S: When and where are you most productive?

WZ: I am most productive when I’m sitting in my office. Now that I work at home, I have to have my own designated area. I really connect with the physical environment that I am in, so I’m very intentional just to have a bright room and a quiet place. Some days I may have classical music in the background, but most of the time, if I’m analyzing data, I prefer quiet.

S: Do you have a favorite research conference to attend?

WZ: The International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) is my favorite one, for many reasons. My background is in mental health counseling, and mostly I attend the American Counseling Association conferences. But because I work with autistic people and do research on autism and mental health, I value the opportunity that INSAR gives me to meet many people from different backgrounds and academic fields, such as psychology and public health. My research agenda really involves an understanding of the whole person, and I feel like INSAR brings the whole field into one room.

S: Did you participate online this year?

WZ: Yes, but it’s not quite the same. I love the in-person experience. I love meeting people from different countries coming together. Just within a day you can make lifelong friends. Hearing the stories from different places is really amazing.

S: What are you reading right now?

WZ: “Good Morning, I Love You,” by Shauna Shapiro. It’s a science-based book that cultivates compassion and mindfulness. It’s the story of how the author came to be more mindful and awakened. I love her work.

S: How do you get your news?

WZ: Twitter is my go-to source for professional news. It’s quick and I get updated information about my colleagues. But otherwise I’m not big in terms of consuming social media. I don’t have a TV, but I keep myself updated about the news back home from online news and my friends who live there. I listen to NPR and watch BBC news online maybe once a week, too.

S: Do you subscribe to any journals or magazines in print?

WZ: I’m a member of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association. I have a subscription to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. I love the print version of that journal. I also have Counseling Today and the American Psychological Association journals, and Child Development. It’s flooded my house actually. It’s a big journal. When you have it, it fills space, so now I am moving more into the online subscriptions.

S: What do you eat or drink while working?

WZ: Well, I am from Ethiopia, so you would expect coffee is always on my table. I am also a big green tea drinker. You will always see almonds and dark chocolate on my table. I love homemade food, so I cook most of the time and prefer plant-based foods.

S: How many unread emails are in your inbox right now?

WZ: I would say, don’t ask ladies about their age and their emails.

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Compleat KiDZ

THIS NOTICE DESCRIBES HOW MEDICAL INFORMATION ABOUT YOU MAY BE USED AND DISCLOSED AND HOW YOU CAN GET ACCESS TO THIS INFORMATION. PLEASE REVIEW IT CAREFULLY.

If you have any questions about this Notice of Privacy Practices, please contact our Privacy Officer, by telephone at (704) 824-7800 or in writing at 2675 Court Drive, Gastonia, NC 28054.
This Notice of Privacy Practices describes how we may use and disclose your protected health information to carry out treatment, payment or health care operations and for other purposes that are permitted or required by law. It also describes your rights to access and control your protected health information. Protected health information is information about you, including demographic information, that may identify you and that relates to your past, present or future physical or mental health or condition and related health care services.

A. WE MUST PROTECT YOUR PROTECTED HEALTH INFORMATION

We are required to abide by the terms of this Notice of Privacy Practices. We may change the terms of our Notice of Privacy Practices at any time. The new Notice of Privacy Practices will be effective for all protected health information that we maintain at that time. Upon your request, we will provide you with any revised Notice of Privacy Practices. You may request a revised version by calling or writing our Privacy Officer and requesting that a revised copy be sent to you in the mail or asking for one at the time of your next appointment.

B. USE AND DISCLOSURES OF PROTECTED HEALTH INFORMATION

Your protected health information may be used and disclosed by our office staff others outside of our office who are involved in your care and treatment for the purpose of providing health care services to you.
Your protected health information may also be used and disclosed to pay your health care bills and to support the operation of our practice.
Following are examples of the types of uses and disclosures of your protected health information that we are permitted to make. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive, but to describe the types of uses and disclosures that may be made by our office.

1. Treatment: We will use and disclose your protected health information to provide, coordinate, or manage your health care and any related services. This includes the coordination or management of your health care with another provider.
For example, we would disclose your protected health information, as necessary, to a home health agency that provides care to you. We will also disclose protected health information to other healthcare providers who may be treating you.
For example, your protected health information may be provided to a physician to whom you have been referred to ensure that the physician has the necessary information to diagnose or treat you. In addition, we may disclose your protected health information from time-to-time to other health care providers (e.g., a specialist or laboratory) who become involved in your care by providing assistance with your health care diagnosis or treatment to us.
2. Payment: We may use and disclose protected health information about you so that the treatment and services you receive at Compleat KiDZ may be billed to and payment may be collected from you, an insurance company, or a third party. This may include certain activities that your health insurance plan may undertake before it approves or pays for the health care services we recommend for you such as: making a determination of eligibility or coverage for insurance benefits, and reviewing services provided to you for medical necessity. For example, if you have a back injury, we may need to give your health plan information about your condition, supplies used, and services you received.
3. Healthcare Operations: We may use or disclose, as needed, your protected health information for healthcare operations. These uses and disclosures are necessary to run Compleat KiDZ and make sure that all of our patients receive quality care. For example, we ma)'use protected health information to review our treatment and services and to evaluate the performance of our staff in caring for you. We may also combine protected health information about many patients to decide what additional services Compleat KiDZ should offer, what services are not needed, and whether certain new treatments are effective. We may also disclose information to doctors, nurses, technicians, medical students, and other personnel for review and learning purposes, we may remove information that identifies you from this set of protected health information so others may use it to study health care and health care delivery without learning the identities of specific patients.
We may share your protected health information with third party "business associates" that perform various activities (for example, billing or transcription services) for our practice. Whenever an arrangement between our practice and a business associate involves the use or disclosure of your protected health information, we will have a written contract that contains terms that will protect the privacy of your protected health information.
We may use and / or disclose protected health information to contact you to, remind you about an appointment you have for treatment or medical care.
We may use or disclose your protected health information, as necessary, to provide you with information about treatment alternatives or other health--related benefits and services that may be of interest to you. You may contact our Privacy Officer to request that these materials not be sent to you.
4. Other Permitted and Required Uses and Disclosures That May Be Made Without Your Authorization or Opportunity to Agree and Object:
We may use or disclose your protected health information in the following situations without your authorization or providing you the opportunity to agree or object. These situations include:
(i) Required by Law: We may use or disclose your protected health information to the extent that the use or disclosure is required by law. The use or disclosure will be made in compliance with the law and will be limited d to the relevant requirements of the law. You will be notified, if required by law, of any such uses or disclosures.

(ii) Public Health: We may disclose your protected health information for public health activities and purposes to a public health authority that is permitted by law to collect or receive the information. For example, a disclosure may be made for the purpose of preventing or controlling disease, injury or disability.

(iii) Communicable Diseases: We may disclose your protected health information, if authorized by law, to a person who may have been exposed to a communicable disease or may otherwise be at risk of contracting or spreading the disease or condition.

(iv) Health Oversight: We may disclose protected health information to a health oversight agency for activities authorized by law, such as audits, investigations, and inspections. Oversight agencies seeking this information include government agencies t-rat oversee the health care system, government benefit programs, other government regulatory programs and civil rights laws.

(v) Abuse or Neglect: We may disclose your protected health information to a public health authority that is authorized by law to receive reports of child abuse or neglect. In addition, we may disclose your protected health information if we believe that you have been a victim of abuse, neglect or domestic violence to the governmental entity or agency authorized to receive such information. In this case, the disclosure will be made consistent with the requirements of applicable federal and state laws.

(vi) Legal Proceedings: We may disclose protected health information in the course of any judicial or administrative proceeding, in response to an order of a court or administrative tribunal (to the extent such disclosure is expressly authorized), or in certain conditions in response to a subpoena, discovery request or other lawful process.

(vii) Law Enforcement: We may also disclose protected health information, so long as applicable legal requirements are met, for law enforcement purposes, these law enforcement purposes include (1) legal processes and otherwise required by law, (2) limited information requests for identification and location purposes, (3) pertaining to victims of a crime, (4) suspicion that death has occurred as a result of criminal conduct, (5) in the event that a crime occurs on the premises of our practice, and (6) medical emergency (not on our premises) and it is likely that a crime has occurred.

(viii) Research: We may disclose your protected health information to researchers when their research has been approved by an institutional review board that has reviewed the research proposal and established protocols to ensure the privacy of your protected health information.

(ix) Criminal Activity: Consistent with applicable federal and state laws, we may disclose your protected health information, if we believe that the use or disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public. We may also disclose protected health information if it is necessary for law enforcement authorities to identify or apprehend an individual.

(x) Military Activity and National Security: When the appropriate conditions apply, we may use or disclose protected health information of individuals who are Armed Forces personnel (1) for activities deemed necessary by appropriate military command authorities; (2) for the purpose of a determination by the Department of Veterans Affairs of your eligibility for benefits, or (3) to foreign military authority if you are a member of that foreign military services. We may also disclose your protected health information to authorized federal officials for conducting national security and intelligence activities, including for the provision of protective services to the President or others legally authorized.

(xi) Workers' Compensation: We may disclose your protected health information as authorized to comply with workers' compensation laws and other similar legally established programs.
5. Other Permitted and Required Uses of Disclosures That Require Providing You the Opportunity to Agree or Object
We may use and disclose your protected health information in the following instances. You have the opportunity to agree or object to the use or disclosure of all or part of your protected health information. If you are not present or able to agree or object to the use or disclosure of the protected health information, then we may, using professional judgment, determine whether the disclosure is in your best interest.

Others Involved in Your Health Care or Payment for our Care:

Unless you object, we may disclose to a member of your family, a relative, a close friend or any other person you identify, your protected health information that directly relates to that person's involvement in your health care. If you are unable to agree or object to such a disclosure, we may disclose such information as necessary if we determine that it is in your best interest based on our professional judgment. We may use or disclose protected health information to notify or assist in notifying a family member, personal representative or any other person that is responsible for your care of your location, general condition or death. Finally, we may use or disclose your protected health information to an authorized public or private entity to assist in disaster relief efforts and to coordinate uses and disclosures to family or other individuals involved in your health care.
6. Uses and Disclosures of Protected Health Information Based upon Your Written Authorization Other uses and disclosures of your protected health information will be made only with your written authorization, unless otherwise permitted or required by law as described below. You may revoke this authorization in writing at any time. If you revoke your authorization, we will no longer use or disclose your protected health information for the reasons covered by your written authorization. Please understand that we are unable to take back any disclosures already made with your authorization.
C. YOUR RIGHTS
Following is a statement of your rights with respect to your protected health information and a brief description of how you may exercise these rights
1. You have the right to inspect and copy your protected health information
This means you may inspect and obtain a copy of protected health information about you for so long as we maintain the protected health information. You may obtain your medical record that contains medical and billing records and any other records that we use for making decisions about you. As permitted by federal or state law, we may charge you a reasonable copy fee for a copy of your records.
2. You have the right to request a restriction of your protected health information
This means you may ask us not to use or disclose any part of your protected health information for the purposes of treatment, payment or health care operations. You may also request that any part of your protected health information not be disclosed to family members or friends who may be involved in your care or for notification purposes as described in this Notice of Privacy Practices. Your request must state the specific restriction requested and to whom you want the restriction to apply.

We are not required to agree to a restriction that you may request. If we agree to the requested restriction, we may not use or disclose your protected health information in violation of that restriction unless it is needed to provide emergency treatment. With this in mind, please discuss any restriction you wish to request with your health provider.

You may request a restriction by making your request in writing to our Privacy Officer. In your request, you must tell us (1) what information you want to limit; (2) whether you want to limit our use, disclosure, or both; and (3) to whom you want the limits to apply, for example, disclosures to your spouse.
3. You have the right to request to receive confidential communications from us by alternative means or at an alternative location
We will accommodate reasonable requests. We may also condition this accommodation by asking you for information as to how payment will be handled or specification of an alternative address or other method of contact. We will not request an explanation from you as to the basis for the request. Please make this request in writing to our Privacy Officer.
4. Your may have right to amend your protected health information
This means you may request an amendment of protected health information about you in a designated record set for so long as we maintain this information. In certain cases, we may deny your request for an amendment. If we deny your request for amendment, you have the right to file a statement of disagreement with us and we may prepare a rebuttal to your statement and will provide you with a copy of any such rebuttal. Please contact our Privacy Officer if you have questions about amending your medical record.
5. You have the right to receive an accounting of certain disclosures we have made, if any, of your protected health information This right applies to disclosures for purposes other than treatment, payment or health care operations as described in this Notice of Privacy Practices. It excludes disclosures we may have made to you if you authorized us to make the disclosure, to family members or friends involved in your care, or for notification purposes, for national security or intelligence, to law enforcement (as provided in the privacy rule) or correctional facilities, as part of a limited data set disclosure. The right to receive this information is subject to certain exceptions, restrictions and limitations.
6. You have the right to obtain a paper copy of this notice from us
upon request, even if you have agreed to accept this notice electronically.
D. COMPLAINTS
You may complain to us or to the Secretary of Health and Human Services if you believe your privacy rights have been violated by us. You may file a complaint with us by notifying our Privacy Officer of your complaint. We will not retaliate against you for filing a complaint

You may contact our Privacy Officer at (704) 824-7800 for further information about the complaint process.

This notice was published and becomes effective on August l, 2011.