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Megan Tudor Q&A: Advocating for Children and Families

Megan TudorMegan Tudor, a 2015 recipient of Stony Brook University’s distinguished doctoral student award, is completing her degree in clinical psychology. Currently on internship at the Oregon Health and Science University, she will begin a postdoctoral position at the Yale Child Study Center this summer. Her research focuses on the ‘big picture’ factors that can influence the functioning of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their family members. Specifically, she has published findings on the influence of sleep problems and pain in this population. Her current focus is on the well-being of siblings of youth with ASD and how they may be better supported by clinicians, families, and their community.

Megan has provided evidence-based family therapy for youth and college students with a variety of presenting problems in various clinics, including SBU's Krasner Psychological Center and the NYU Child Study Center. She is an advocate for the quality of life of children and families, including those affected by developmental disabilities and chronic illnesses, and aims for her research, clinical work, and college courses to reflect a strong sense of respect and care for these individuals and their families.

Stony Brook University Graduate School (SBU GS): How did you get interested in psychology – and why a focus on ASD?

Tudor: I’ve always felt the need to fiercely protect children, even when I was a child myself. I just didn’t think it was right if I saw someone who was different or had special needs being picked on, so I would speak up. I think a lot of this came from my mom – she’s a superstar elementary school teacher in one of the poorest cities in the United States. She instilled a sense of justice in me from a young age, a sense that every child matters. These ideals and a love of kids somehow naturally led me to this field.

From there, I’ve sought out opportunities to work for children who are most in-need, which has included a focus on youth with developmental disabilities and youth with chronic illnesses. These little guys are the ones that other people seem to think are really different from other kids, but I’ve never seen them that way. They’re just awesome kids who might need some more help or support than others. I think that kind of outlook made me a good fit for child clinical psychology.

SBU GS: What excites you about your work?

I get to see things change! Lives change! That’s pretty amazing.

Tudor: I get to see things change! Lives change! That’s pretty amazing. Just as an example: I recently ended treatment with a really cute little toddler who, when I first met him, had a penchant for punching babies in the face at daycare. About a month later, he’s the daycare model citizen. He hasn’t lost his zest for adventure, but now he is enjoying life punch-free. It’s exciting to problem-solve with kids and the different systems they are a part of – family, school, medical – to figure out how to help them behave and think in ways that will set them on a path to success in the future.

Sometimes this means changing their behavior and sometimes it means changing grown-ups’ behavior – that is also exciting, getting to tell grown-ups what to do. The 5-year-old version of me would be very proud of the career path I chose for that reason.

Research is also becoming more and more exciting to me because I can see how, much like evidence-based treatments at the individual level, research can incite change at a systemic level. Just the other day, a social worker at my internship told me that she had found a sibling paper I published and was using it to help guide recommendations for sibling-related treatment programming at the hospital. Maximum excitement levels about that one. 

SBU GS: What have you found surprising?

Tudor: I’ve been perpetually surprised by the issue of vaccinations and the “autism epidemic.” The whole issue reflects a huge divide between science and families. And, when it comes to autism and developmental disabilities, there’s a historical precedent to that divide - I think it’s getting smaller over time, but it’s still there. It still surprises me when I hear (as I often do) that parents are not vaccinating their children because they are afraid it will cause autism, despite so much evidence to the contrary and, most importantly, the profound health risk this presents for other children. I recently learned that there have been several episodes of “vaccination scares” throughout history, basically since they have existed, which is a very interesting social phenomenon in my opinion.

SBU GS: What have been some of the challenges?

Tudor: As many other people who work with children will tell you, we see some children in really rough situations. Severe illness or injury, trauma, abuse - in one way or another, these kids and families are facing tremendous obstacles that I wish did not exist. There are some really rough days because of that. Cartoons and bacon help.

SBU GS: After you finish your clinical internship, you’ll be starting a post-doctoral fellowship at the Yale Child Study Center; what will you be focusing on there?

Tudor: I’ll be expanding my focus to another group of children in-need – those with severe aggression and anger problems. These are the kids that people and schools frequently give up on. I’ll be the lead clinician for a large-scale R01 randomized controlled trial (RCT) of therapies for these youth (PI: Dr. Denis Sukoholsky). Something especially exciting is that it is a Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) study, which means that it will not focus on specific diagnosis - children with aggression and any other diagnoses (e.g., autism, anxiety, depression) will participate in the study.

This represents a cutting-edge approach to treating psychopathology: focusing on functional impairments and specific symptoms rather than diagnostic labels. It’s a collaboration across several researchers so several different outcomes of therapy are assessed, including neuroimaging findings. Also, since it’s a research study, free therapy will be provided to families who might otherwise not have been able to get services – that part is also really exciting to me. I’m really looking forward to working with these families and learning a ton about how to run large-scale multidimensional treatment studies.

SBU GS: What courses or experiences – outside of your direct program area – have you found most valuable in informing your research?

Tudor: In terms of courses, I really have to give a shout-out to the philosophy courses I took in college. They taught me how to form arguments and critically analyze problems in a way that I haven’t found in other disciplines. That knowledge has really influenced my writing style. At Stony Brook – but outside of classes – I had the amazing opportunity to make friends from all over the world. I was able to learn about perceptions of children, family, disability, and illness in many different cultures and geographic locations. I think about that a lot as I am formulating research questions or thinking about how to apply research findings to real-life clinic experiences.

SBU GS: How has clinical psychology program at SBU helped equip you for success?

Tudor: The Stony Brook clinical psychology program offered seriously top-notch training in research methods and evidence-based treatments. While these components are not something you can find just anywhere, the program offered something even rarer: The professors in my program equipped me with a sense of autonomy. They are definitely not just attempting to churn out mini-versions of themselves; the strengths that each person has to offer as a clinician and a researcher are truly valued. I was given many opportunities to work independently, lead others, and develop my own distinct style as a professional. I really appreciate that philosophy – it has definitely equipped me well as a young woman in this field.

SBU GS: What opportunities did you find most valuable?

Tudor: Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to directly tie the clinical practice I am doing to research projects that I am working on – that’s been invaluable. For instance, I worked on an randomized control trial (RCT) for youth with inflammatory bowel diseases and anxiety disorders. I did assessments and therapy with the kids while, simultaneously, the team and I worked on a publication about these youth and how to better serve them in medical clinics. As I’ve been doing sibling-focused research, I’ve been very attuned to sibling issues as I do family therapy. These kinds of opportunities really remind me how – at least for me – clinical work and research are both improved when you wear both hats.

SBU GS: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a graduate degree in psychology?

Tudor: I’d tell them to keep an open mind. I went into grad school with a very specific idea of what I wanted to do for – dun dun dun – the rest of my life! Nevertheless, I was open to new experiences, and I think I’ve gained a much richer understanding of child clinical psychology because of it. Over time, I’ve learned that most people have switched their focuses or specialty areas along the way; it’s very rare to be on trajectory and stay there forever. You can save yourself a lot of stress by remembering that and letting yourself explore. That’s kind of the joy of being a student. Also, I’d definitely recommend that they make friends outside of the psychology department. I found that making friends from all different programs at the university was invaluable both personally and professionally.

SBU GS: Do you have any book recommendations for laypeople interested in learning more about the ‘big picture’ factors influencing individuals with autism spectrum disorders and their families?

Tudor: Yes! Dr. V. Mark Durand has two books that speak to issues that can hugely effect families affected by ASD: sleep problems, Sleep Better! A Guide to Improving Sleep for Children with Special Needs and Severe Behavior Problems: A Functional Communication Training Approach . These books provide background information about these issues and practical treatment recommendations that can be informative for families or people wanting to learn more about these issues and how they are responded to behaviorally.

In terms of “big picture” factors that relate specifically to family systems, I recommend Thicker Than Water: Essays by Adults Siblings of People with Disabilities edited by Don Meyer. These essays reflect the broad and totally heterogeneous experience of living with a brother or sister with a disability. For anyone wanting to learn about more general information about ASD, books like The Science and Fiction of Autism by Dr. Laura Schreibman are great. Maybe most importantly, I recommend any books that are associated with Jenny McCarthy are avoided and met only with loud sighs and eye-rolling.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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