Catalight’s New Post-Doctoral Training Program Aimed to Address Industry-Wide Shortage of Qualified Autism Evaluators and Long Diagnostic Wait Times 

Catalight Chief Health Officer Tracy Gayeski, Psy.D., MBA, and Vice President of Diagnostic and Psychological Assessments Nina Rudnick, Psy.D. discuss the post-doc program at Catalight’s Walnut Creek headquarters.

Recognizing an industry-wide problem that’s only increasing with the rising rates of autism, Catalight has taken a step on its own to improve access to care and diagnostics by training post-doctoral psychologists to conduct evaluations for children who may have developmental disabilities.  

Catalight’s post-doctoral training program officially goes into session in August with a cohort of four psychologists working under the supervision of Catalight diagnostic evaluators for a year. Two trainees began off-cycle and are working now under Catalight clinical supervisors. The program is specifically geared to autism spectrum disorder developmental assessment. 

One of the largest behavioral health networks in the United States, Catalight will teach the doctoral graduates to conduct comprehensive autism evaluations for children. With 1 in 36 children in the United States being diagnosed with autism today, there’s an ever-expanding need for psychologist evaluations. Unfortunately, the number of professionals with expertise in intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, who are also able to conduct diagnostic evaluations is scarce.  

The imbalance of supply and demand for services is causing a nationwide problem. 

“The challenges we’ve had over the past several years, and it’s not a challenge unique to Catalight by any means, is the lack of professionals who do this type of work – neurodevelopmental evaluation or evaluation for developmental disabilities,” said Catalight Diagnostic Evaluation Training Manager Ashley Hazel, Ph.D., BCBA, who’s leading the post-doc program. “It’s why you see such long wait lists across the country for autism evaluations. Families are waiting one to two years to get an evaluation, which we know can be detrimental to children given those years are often the most important developmental years. When they’re forced to wait that long for an evaluation, they’re not getting the treatment that they may need.”  

Individuals who receive their doctorate degree in psychology, clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and developmental psychology must undertake 3,000 supervised hours to become a licensed psychologist. By completing Catalight’s full-time, post-doc program, trainees will satisfy those supervised hours while earning an annual salary.  

“Families are facing significant difficulties getting assessments in a timely manner. This isn’t just about hiring, it’s about us knowing how hard it is for families to get to that point of assessment,” said Catalight’s Vice President of Diagnostic and Psychological Assessments Nina Rudnick, Psy.D. “This is a community need. We have diverse clinical expertise at Catalight and we’re very fortunate to have a research foundation with data to inform clinicians. If the trainees stay with us, that’s great. If they choose to go off on their own to private practice or other healthcare organizations, that’s great, too. Either way, they’re providing much-needed services, kids are getting more prompt diagnoses and they’re making an impact on families’ lives.”  

With practicums, pre-doctoral internships and dissertations, the majority of recent psychology doctorate graduates have a good idea what interests them and where they want to take their career. While there are many advanced training opportunities – both with more generalized post-doc programs and in private practices – a program like Catalight’s that is so specifically focused is very rare. For recent graduates looking to help families with behavioral health, Catalight’s specialty offering fills a niche need. 

“A post-doc is an exciting time when people can really hone their skills while working under the supervision of an expert in the field,” said Dr. Rudnick. “If this were available to me, I would’ve done this post-doc.” 

On a weekly basis, Catalight post-docs receive two to three hours of individual and group supervision, one to two hours of didactic training in developmental disabilities, evaluation procedures and clinical adherence to best practices. They receive clinical practice experience that includes direct testing, consultation, feedback sessions with parents, intake assessments, and opportunities to provide direct evidence-based therapeutic services. 

“Their week consists of doing direct diagnostic evaluations with a licensed psychologist, gradually picking up portions of that evaluation until they’re independent, honing their administration, interpretation and report writing skills. They’re training with either me or other people in the field, about diagnosing autism, what autism is, what it isn’t, what can be confused for autism and what effective treatments for autism are,” Dr. Hazel said. “All of those things make the program well-rounded, keeps everyone up to date with current research and ensures they’re part of the team environment here. They continue to gain independence month after month until, at the end, they’re doing a full evaluation independently.” 

When post-docs do graduate the program and become fully independent, Catalight’s post-docs will be in a position to make a difference in their community by expanding access to families waiting on help for their children.