Filling a void: Penn State alumna takes on autism in Sri Lanka

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As an undergraduate speech-language pathology student in India, for the first time Nimisha Muttiah had the opportunity to work with children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) at specialized pre-schools.

After the experience and before heading to the United States to earn her master’s degree, Muttiah returned to her home country of Sri Lanka where she started working with three children with ASD.

That is when Muttiah noticed something was missing.

“Parents were desperately looking for professionals who would work with their children and for schools that would accept these children,” Muttiah said. “They had spent a significant amount of time, money and effort pursuing treatment for their children in other more developed countries.”

Two of the children did not have functional speech and Muttiah was interested in finding alternate ways for them to communicate.

“My interest in autism began with this encounter,” she said.

After earning a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders at Bowling Green State University, Muttiah worked as a school speech-language pathologist in Atlanta. Next, she enrolled at Penn State where she earned a doctoral degree in communication sciences and disorders in May 2015.

While at Penn State, Muttiah wanted to apply what she was learning in the classroom directly to her community in Sri Lanka.

“I saw for myself the lack of professional and material resources and felt there was a genuine need and void that needed to be filled,” she said. “Also, my plan was to someday return back home.”

Nimisha Muttiah at Franciscan Hospital for Children

Nimisha Muttiah, who earned her doctoral degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Penn State in May, works with a patient at Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston. While studying at Penn State, Muttiah spent her summers in Sri Lanka training special education teachers who work with children who have severe communication needs. Muttiah plans to return to Sri Lanka to fill a void by opening a center for children with communication needs.

Franciscan Hospital for Children

In order to make an impact, Muttiah determined that her work needed to focus on four areas:

  • Conducting research to find communication tools and training methods that would be appropriate for a low-resource context.
  • Training pre-service speech-language pathologists.
  • Creating awareness among the general public regarding autism and other communication disorders.
  • Providing clinical services in speech and language therapy.

“With my focus areas in mind, I studied at Penn State and spent my summers in Sri Lanka implementing my research. I taught a little at the only university in the country, which now offers a degree in speech-language pathology, and gave presentations and talks on various topics related to the field,” Muttiah said.

Muttiah’s dissertation research study involved training special education teachers in Sri Lanka who work with students who have severe communication needs.

“Special education teachers in Sri Lanka receive limited training. Additionally, they receive minimal to no training in communication interventions and strategies,” Muttiah said.

Muttiah provided the teachers with training on communication strategies that can be used with children with severe communication needs.

“The training proved to be very effective and we saw positive changes in the teachers’ communication interactions with their students,” she said.

While state-of-the-art technology is available in the United States to help children with ASD better communicate, Muttiah knew such resources would not be accessible to parents in Sri Lanka. Therefore, she researched low-technology communication options that could be used in developing countries and other low-resource communities.

Muttiah also found that there is limited awareness in Sri Lanka about disabilities, and specifically about communication disorders.

“I really enjoyed traveling to the north of Sri Lanka - Jaffna, where there was a 30-year civil war up until a few years ago. In this area, the needs are significant and resources are few,” she said.

To help, Muttiah conducted workshops with teachers and parents, presented public talks on topics such as ASD, and conducted presentations for general physicians to help them recognize ASD. She also provided physicians with educational resources for children. Muttiah conducted similar activities in Tangalle and Galle, two cities located in the south of Sri Lanka.

Additionally, she wrote columns for local newspapers to educate readers about the speech-language pathology profession and communication disorders.

“I feel that the work I have currently done in Sri Lanka is barely scratching the surface,” Muttiah said. “There is much more that needs to happen in order for children with special needs to receive satisfactory educational and communication services.”

“I feel that the work I have currently done in Sri Lanka is barely scratching the surface,” Muttiah said. “There is much more that needs to happen in order for children with special needs to receive satisfactory educational and communication services.”

Muttiah plans to one day continue her efforts in Sri Lanka, in part by starting a center that offers services to children with severe communication needs.

“While conducting my research, I realized that I didn't often encounter children with severe disabilities in school,” Muttiah said. “My guess is these children were not in school, due to schools refusing to accept them as they could not provide them with the level of services they needed.”

Kathryn Drager, associate dean for research and graduate education with the College of Health and Human Development, served as Muttiah’s academic advisor and research supervisor at Penn State.

“Nimisha’s work represents the first and only investigation of the issues faced by parents in Sri Lanka, and will be a valuable resource for advocacy and policy change,” Drager said. “The results of her studies will significantly contribute to our knowledge base for providing high-quality educational experiences for children with significant disabilities around the globe.”

Now, in the next chapter of her career, Muttiah looks on her time at Penn State with gratitude.

“Thank you to my mentors Kathy Drager and David McNaughton. It was truly a privilege to be at Penn State and learn from some of the best people in our field,” she said.

Currently, Muttiah is a speech language pathologist at Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston. In her role, she works with children who have severe disabilities and complex communication needs, and who attend the Kennedy Day School, a program that serves 65 children whose needs are best met outside their home school system. The school operates as part of the hospital and shares its resources in a unique model that benefits children with complex needs. 

“We are proud of Nimisha whose work is a wonderful example of the unwavering commitment our staff have to ensuring every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential,” said John D. Nash, president and CEO. “Here and overseas, Nimisha’s expertise and personal commitment can impact the lives of many.”    

About Franciscan Hospital for Children

Franciscan Hospital for Children, located in Boston’s neighborhood of Brighton, is the leading pediatric rehabilitation center in New England. The hospital offers medical, behavioral and educational services for children with complex issues requiring interdisciplinary care. For more information on the hospital, visit, find it on Facebook or follow it on Twitter @FranciscanHFC.

Last Updated March 04, 2016