The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center announces new leadership for its University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD). Julie Lounds Taylor, Ph.D., and Pablo Juárez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA, will succeed Elise McMillan, J.D., who officially retires June 30, 2023. Taylor and Juárez each have longstanding histories with the VKC and bring unique expertise to the UCEDD leadership team with an emphasis on research, program development and expansion, and advocacy.
“I am thrilled that Julie Lounds Taylor and Pablo Juárez will be the new co-directors of the VKC UCEDD,” said Jeffrey Neul, M.D., Ph.D., Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair and director of the VKC. “Julie and Pablo each individually are exceptional leaders who have shown incredible dedication to improving the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Bringing together their complementary expertise to serve as co-directors of the UCEDD represents a ‘Dream Team,’ and I am excited about their ideas for the future success of the UCEDD and look forward to working with them for years to come.”
Julie Lounds Taylor is an outstanding scholar in family research whose focus has been on the crucial transition to adulthood for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). She investigates behavioral, and environmental factors that promote positive adult outcomes.
Taylor received her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Wheaton College, and her master’s and doctorate degrees in Developmental Psychology at the University of Notre Dame.
After a postdoctoral fellowship in the Lifespan Family Research Laboratory at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, she joined the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) Pediatrics faculty and became a member of the VKC in 2008. In 2015, she became associate director of the VKC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC)’s Data Sciences Core, assisting in organizing training in biostatistics and bioinformatics, and in connecting VKC investigators to rigorous statistical and data science support. She joined the VUMC Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences faculty in 2018.
Taylor’s program of research has contributed critical knowledge about the challenges faced by youth with autism and their families during the transition years. She has identified a number of different social and environmental factors that influence risk for mental health challenges, including peer victimization, traumatic experiences, inadequate social participation, and job loss. She has also identified high rates of employment instability for autistic young adults and is currently investigating this issue in greater depth in a large longitudinal study.
Taylor’s research also has clearly identified that families are not getting information about the array of adult services that might be available to their son/daughter with autism after leaving high school. With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), she developed and pilot-tested a program that teaches parents of individuals with disabilities about the array of adult services available after high school exit, as well as their interconnections and how to advocate for their sons and daughters most effectively.
The intervention program, Volunteer Advocacy Project-Transition (VAP-T) is an excellent example of how Taylor’s research bridges the academic sector and the community. She partnered with families, community service providers, and disability advocates who were experts in the context delivered in each session. These community providers/advocates were able to give families the most up-to-date information about service systems, as well as practical advice for pursuing and procuring services. An Advisory Committee of parents and advocates, researchers, and service providers gave extensive feedback on the curriculum.
Testing the program was indeed promising, but the program only reflected services in the state of Tennessee. Taylor’s most recent iteration of the program is a 12-week advocacy training program named Advocating for SupportS to Improve Service Transition (ASSIST) to help parents across the country learn how to best advocate for services for their young adult on the autism spectrum. The work is in partnership with researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Arc Tennessee, and many other local agencies and organizations such as the Tennessee Disability Coalition and the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Taylor also is a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), which coordinates all efforts within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concerning autism. She has led an IACC workgroup on health and mental health, coordinating educational panels for committee meetings, and leading the development and drafting of a key section of the strategic plan for autism research and services. She also serves as an editor for the journal Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, which is one of the leading journals in the field.
“I am thrilled to begin this new chapter of my career with the VKC UCEDD,” said Taylor. “The collaborative work I have been doing has ignited in me the desire to ‘look up’ from the research and to use what we as a field have learned to improve the lives of those with disabilities through training, education, and advocacy. Listening to the voices of those with disabilities and their supporters should be a key aspect of this work –indeed, it has guided my own research agenda – and I relish the opportunity to work closely with self-advocates, their families, and Pablo Juárez in this new leadership position in the UCEDD.”
Pablo Juárez joins Taylor as UCEDD co-director. He currently serves as co-director of the VKC’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD), director of Behavioral Analysis in the Division of Developmental Medicine, and as a senior associate in Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Special Education.
Juárez has extensive experience building bridges within communities, the state, and the nation by directing activities that promote best practices in supports and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and helping to bring systematic change for sustainable growth in service provision.
He received his undergraduate degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) from the University of North Texas where he was a McNair Scholar. He received his M.Ed. with emphases in ABA and Neuroscience at Vanderbilt University and started working at Vanderbilt as a BCBA and educational consultant within TRIAD in 2008. His initial role was acting as a lead trainer on Department of Education-sponsored grants designed to provide teachers with skills for better assisting children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) across Tennessee. When he started in this role, these training programs were relatively small with a handful of trainers supplying fairly traditional continuing education and professional development trainings. His vision, leadership, and exceptional quality of work grew what was a small and relatively stable program into a larger, dynamic, and growing enterprise with tremendous impact on our state’s special education community. Specifically, Juárez partnered with VUMC leaders, educators, and key members of the Tennessee Department of Education to grow this program to nearly eight times its original size in a few short years.
Juárez also has collaborated and leveraged the expertise of his skilled team to fuel an ever-growing number of program advancements and high-level research projects. This includes fueling the team of interventionists needed to support the largest clinical trial of early intervention ever conducted to date (NIMH Autism Center of Excellence grant), supporting the providers leading the charge toward integrated behavioral services with VUMC’s primary care units, developing the district and state partnerships necessary for participating in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, and providing a support infrastructure for VUMC participation in the largest clinical genetics collection attempted to date (Simons Foundation SPARK study).
His concern with “service deserts” led to a TRIAD focus on extending services and educational opportunities to rural and low-resource areas across Tennessee. Under his leadership, TRIAD has developed and grown innovative approaches to service provision in rural areas, including the use and evaluation of telemedicine and online training resources.
In addition, Juárez and his team have built a systematic program regarding community engagement. This program not only provided evidence-based parent training to families of young children with ASD (TRIAD Families First Program), but forged relationships with the cultural institutions of our city (i.e. Nashville Zoo, Nashville Predators, Nashville Symphony, YMCA, Nashville Opera, Nashville Children’s Theatre, Country Music Hall of Fame, and Nashville Public Library) to develop and support inclusive programming, allowing families of children with ASD to include their children in the cultural jewels of our community. The All-Access Inclusion Network was invited to join the Cultural Access Knowledge Network coordinated by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Through his various professional service activities, Juárez began working with and learning from autistic and autism advocates nationwide and encouraging Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) practitioners to think more critically about ABA services. In 2022, he wrote a commentary on ABA that outlines some pressing concerns and encourages practitioners to remove the ableism that continues to be a significant barrier to the progression of ABA as a practice. He was named Director of Behavior Analysis for the VKC and VUMC in 2022.
Juárez and his team are committed to feedback and direction from neurodivergent people as an essential component to its mission. Lived experience and the expertise of autistic and other neurodivergent people informs and guides the work of TRIAD (e.g. internal resources, professional development for educators and organizations, caregiver training).
Juárez and his affiliated TRIAD programming have received regional and national awards for professional service and accomplishments, including the Community Service Award from Autism Tennessee, the Young Professional Award from AUCD, Educator of the Year from The Arc US, and the Community Engagement Award from the AAIDD. He was also selected to serve as part of the AUCD’s prestigious Leadership Academy.
His leadership is evident in the impact he has made through his mentoring of faculty, staff, and students across his programs. He has invested tremendously in the careers of a growing number of young behavioral science faculty, staff, and students and these investments have made a stunning impact on the professional trajectories of these individuals. He is a leader who invests in developing leadership in others.
“Having been at the VKC since 2008 and in a leadership position with TRIAD since 2012, I have been able to see from multiple perspectives how extraordinary this Center really is,” said Juárez. “It’s a center I have personal and professional investment in. Taking on a leadership role in the VKC UCEDD is humbling and a high honor. I am inspired by the legacy Elise McMillan has established and like her, approach this role with purpose and passion.”