Autism pioneer Dr. Valerie Scaramella-Nowinski

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Raised to value service above self, Dr. Valerie Scaramella-Nowinski has dramatically improved the lives of countless children on the autism spectrum.

For parents of children on the autism spectrum, and those impacted by similar developmental disorders, the worst four words you can hear are “don’t expect too much.”

So much of the uncertainty facing these families is owed to the broad nature of autism. It’s not a single, uniform disorder, but rather an umbrella diagnosis comprising a range of conditions affecting speech, the sensory system and social interactions. Some neurodiverse children may have a small communications delay compared to their neurotypical peers, while others may be completely nonverbal and exhibit repetitive behaviors. The severity of these symptoms often varies wildly from child to child, and the worst of the effects can be lifelong.

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Research doesn’t point to a single cause for autism, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors. And the disorder has no genetic or biological markers for early detection, unlike prenatal screenings for Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis. Most neurodiverse children receive their diagnosis based on symptoms that manifest at 24 months old.

Over the past two decades, the prevalence of autism has risen dramatically along with public awareness. Today, one out of every 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to a 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So it comes as little surprise that many parents who end up in Dr. Valerie Scaramella-Nowinski’s office are looking not just for diagnosis and intervention, but also for reassurances their neurodiverse children can still have promising lives.

“The brain is an unbelievably robust organ in children,” Scaramella-Nowinski says. “I’ve seen kids with the most severe brain disorders and those with the lightest, and I always tell parents — and I mean this — that the brain is a protective organ, and children are resilient and adaptable beings. With the right help, they can develop so much of their God-given potential.”

As one of the country’s leading pediatric neuropsychologists, with a nationally renowned practice in Orland Park, Illinois, Scaramella-Nowinski brings more than four decades of clinical experience to the fore when treating autism and other pervasive neurodevelopmental disorders, brain injury, and attention and learning problems like dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Her Pediatric Neuropsychology Diagnostic and Treatment Center has worked with thousands of children since its founding in 1995, and Scaramella-Nowinski’s laser focus on how the mind and body work in tandem, combined with a team approach to treatment, have been game-changers in maximizing positive outcomes for her patients.

Perhaps most important, she is giving parents of neurodiverse children something that is often lacking in discussions of their treatment and ultimately their lifelong potential — hope.

“We tend to take a Band-Aid approach in our medical system instead of looking at the underlying conditions. We treat without always knowing what we’re treating,” Scaramella-Nowinski says. “But neuroscience as a field has grown, and that is changing. There’s tremendous hope in seeing how the brain and body connect, and how we can use that to develop health and well-being.”

The 1990s were called the “decade of the brain,” as they were marked by major advances in neuroscience research. The insights gleaned from that point forward have given clinicians like Scaramella-Nowinski a greater understanding of brain pathways in children and how much those may be affected by internal and external stressors. “The more severe the disorder, the more brain pathways are affected, and the more pathways we see affected, the more pervasive the problem,” she says.

Although research never stops and new discoveries are made daily, Scaramella-Nowinski knows one thing for certain: The brain has the power to learn beyond injury; beyond illness; and, perhaps most applicable to her patients, beyond genetics. In fact, she says only a small percentage of gene-related conditions in the brain cannot be changed, and those are the degenerative ones. The vast majority of children, even those on the spectrum, do not exhibit those.

Scaramella-Nowinski focuses on what she calls the “head-to-toe connections” — the interplay between biological, environmental and even spiritual factors. Her approach brings together all the key stakeholders — parents, physicians, allied health professions and educators — to holistically treat a neurodivergent child. Sometimes that means ruling out mitigating disorders, such as epilepsy, before proceeding with proven autism treatments to kick-start brain development.

“You never want to give patients false hope, but I’ve been around long enough to see beautiful things,” Scaramella-Nowinski says. “If you know what’s going on, and you know how to test brain function, and you know how to set up a treatment team, a child’s natural abilities will flourish a heck of a lot more when you know what you’re treating.”

Born in Chicago and raised in the Beverly community on the city’s South Side, Scaramella-Nowinski is one of five children of the late Louis and Nina Scaramella, both Italian immigrants. Her parents hailed from San Lucido, a seaside town in the province of Cosenza in Calabria, though the couple-to-be didn’t meet each other until a fateful night in 1948 when Louis was visiting family in New York City and was introduced to Nina by his cousin.

Scaramella had already trained as a physician in Italy, and completed his internship and residencies in Chicago, where he and Nina moved after they were married. He opened a solo practice in 1952 and did a stint in the Army Medical Corps from 1954 to 1956. Specializing in otolaryngology, he pioneered a surgical facial nerve procedure, earning international renown. But his greatest impact was as a husband and father, instilling values in his children that would shape their lives for decades to come.

“I grew up in a close-knit family, a medical family that truly espoused service to others,” Scaramella-Nowinski says. “We learned how to have respect for ourselves and for others, and that life is about helping others no matter what field you’re in. All of that came from our strong Italian heritage.”

Growing up, Scaramella-Nowinski, along with her siblings, helped out with odd jobs around her father’s office. She remembers encountering patients whose once-expressive faces had been ravaged by injury or tumors, their features trapped in a suspended state of lifelessness.

“Nerves give life to the face,” Louis Scaramella once said. His revolutionary surgical technique, in which healthy nerves were grafted from donor areas of the body and implanted in the face to restore function and ease paralysis, helped countless patients during his more than 50 years in medicine.

But what stuck with Scaramella-Nowinski were the before-and-after photographs her father took of his patients’ progress. “I’d see them, and it would bring tears to my eyes,” she says. “At a young age, I saw what it meant for someone to have their face return to normal. They would be so happy to just smile again.”

Scaramella-Nowinski never forgot her father’s example, nor the lesson that medicine, at its heart, should be about treating people, not simply their ailments. After high school, she attended Loyola University in Chicago, attaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and immediately after earned a master’s in social work from the same university in 1975. Her earliest jobs included positions as a school social worker in a special education department and as a clinical social worker in the south Chicago suburbs. In 1976, she took a job as a medical social worker in the neuropsychiatry department at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois.

It was there she met Dr. Eugene Voltolina, a fellow Italian and one of the first neuropsychiatrists and authors in the country to recognize the then-undervalued connection between mental and physical health. Impressed by Scaramella-Nowinski, he invited her in 1977 to join his neuropsychiatric institute, which treated conditions related to brain behavior and development, in suburban Palos Heights, Illinois.

A tremendous number of children and teens impacted by neurological disorders came through that clinic at a time when many were being unnecessarily institutionalized, and professionals were only seeing part of the story, Scaramella-Nowinski says.

“We looked at the whole child, their whole brain development,” she says. “When you worked with them, you could see their growth. We had a commitment to helping people with their health and well-being, and we made a connection with them.”

It was immensely fulfilling work, so much so that in 1980 she decided to go back to school to earn a doctorate in neuropsychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology. She was so enamored with the inner processes of the human mind, she sought out Ralph Reitan, a titan in the field who is often called the “father of clinical neuropsychology,” to study directly with him. Reitan developed a groundbreaking diagnostic assessment for brain behavior, and Scaramella-Nowinski says his mentorship proved to be a blessing for her career.

While Scaramella-Nowinski was working toward her doctorate, she also was growing her family, even giving birth to a child during the penultimate year of her dissertation. She met her husband, now-retired Cook County Circuit Court Judge Thomas E. Nowinski, years earlier at her sister’s wedding. Scaramella-Nowinski was studying abroad in Rome at the time, so she and Thomas wrote letters to one another during a blossoming romance separated by an ocean. Upon her return home, the couple wed and, in the intervening 47 years, raised four children who all now work in some form of public service and have given the couple 10 grandchildren.

In 1995, Scamarella-Nowinski set out on her own and opened the Pediatric Neuropsychology Diagnostic and Treatment Center, where she and her team have since developed diagnostic, brain-training and education programs for countless children. She has published several scholarly articles on learning and child development and is a much-sought-after speaker, traveling the country and world to share her insights and expertise. In 2003, Scaramella-Nowinski and her family founded the nonprofit Neuropsychology C.H.I.L.D. (Child Health Initiative for Learning and Development) Foundation to promote public awareness of research and clinical work related to pediatric brain behavior.

The ultimate goal, she says, is to empower parents of neurodiverse children with individualized tools that foster brain development and learning.

“In life, we don’t want kids to be specialists; we want them to be generalists,” Scaramella-Nowinski says. “But that’s not how all children grow. If the parents are guided from early on, and we find out what they’re good at, these children will learn and develop.”

Even after they’ve become adults, many of Scaramella-Nowinski’s patients will reach out to her with notes and letters about their progress and the brighter, more fulfilling lives they now lead.

“I’ve seen this happen hundreds and hundreds of times,” she says. “They may have some difficulties here and there, but they have love, they have health and they have well-being. And I get to see them live their lives.”

Scaramella-Nowinski stops for a moment to acknowledge not just the connections between brain and body she’s championed throughout her career, but also the lifetime impact of a doctor-patient relationship built on a foundation of hope.

“It’s nice to be kind of old,” she says with a laugh. “You establish these connections over the years, and you can see when you’ve touched people’s lives.”

Just as important to Scaramella-Nowinski are the countless ways her patients have touched her life. “I can honestly say,” she assures, “that I learn more from these children than they will ever learn from me.”

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The above appears in the December 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Jim Distasio

Jim Distasio is an award-winning writer, director, editor. His documentary “Sawdust: Life in the Ring,” about the Zoppè Family Circus, was an official selection at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the River’s Edge Film Festival. His documentary “5,000 Miles From Home,” about the impact of World War II on Chicago’s Italian-American community, earned two local Emmys on six nominations. Distasio earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as an adjunct lecturer. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Chicago Tribune Magazine, American Profile, Vine Line and Fra Noi.

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