Grad Student Absorbs Autism Education to Help Children in Lebanon
University of Texas at Dallas master’s student Noura Alameddine BS'15 holds two homes, half a world apart, close to her heart.
Born in Beaumont, Texas, raised in Midlothian, and residing in the Metroplex for the majority of her life — Alameddine is unquestionably Texan. She is also proud of her Lebanese roots, and she is determined to help children in Lebanon, using the training and expertise she has amassed on the subject that became her devotion: autism spectrum disorders.
Her quest to help countless families better understand their diagnoses began while observing her own relatives.
“When I was in high school, my cousin in the Middle East was diagnosed with autism,” said Alameddine, who is earning a master's degree in human development and early childhood disorders. “He was 2 years old when they started seeing indications, but didn’t get diagnosed officially until he was 4 or 5. It was a messy, drawn-out process. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Why can’t they figure it out? It shouldn’t be that hard, right?’”
In addition to the struggle for a definitive answer, Alameddine saw that autism carried with it a serious stigma.
“Some there believe that these children will never learn. They just think, ‘This kid is so weird,’” Alameddine said.
Finding Her Niche In Neuroscience
She began studying at UT Dallas in 2012 on a pre-med path. Though helping children was already in her plans, her intentions shifted during her first years on campus.
“My original plan was to be a pediatrician, but I found out that medicine wasn’t for me,” Alameddine said. “When I looked at neuroscience, a spark of curiosity turned into a passion.”
Dr. Pamela Rollins, an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, specializes in learning and communication processes in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. She found in Alameddine a voracious appetite for the subject.
“She’s so eager to learn everything,” Rollins said. “She’ll often come to my office to discuss something she’s read that was related to what we’ve been covering in class, to make sure it all fits together in a coherent picture.”
“I went from knowing almost nothing about neuroscience to being obsessed with it,” Alameddine said. “My cousin was really an inspiration for me — he’s only 8 though, so he doesn’t realize it.”
A Collective, Cohesive Campus
Outside the classroom at UT Dallas, she found a populace that, for all of its diversity, functions like a tight-knit community.
“What I ended up loving about UTD is how collective and cohesive it is,” Alameddine said. “It feels homey, neither too big nor too small. There’s a healthy balance that means you have easy access to professors and to your peers.”
“I met so many amazing individuals at UTD. My professors are so full of resources — any time I have questions, my professors always have their doors open.”
After completing her undergraduate degree in 2015, she took a year off — but knew UT Dallas would be there when she was ready to come back.
“Having that wonderful experience the first time around, I knew when I came back, I would get an even better experience in the master’s program — and I have,” Alameddine said. “I met so many amazing individuals at UTD. My professors are so full of resources — any time I have questions, my professors always have their doors open.”
She has particular praise for Rollins and for her clinical advisor, senior lecturer Donna Ewing, who graduated from the same master’s program in 2008. For her part, Ewing describes Alameddine as “an amazing student who’s come out of her shell” in 18 months in the program.
“She’s talking to professionals in the field with confidence, and they’ve come away impressed with her determination, abilities, knowledge, skills — and her dream to help those little ones in Lebanon who aren’t getting the help they need,” Ewing said.
On the Right Path to Helping Others
Alameddine hopes to dive right in upon graduating, crossing the Atlantic soon after to begin working in a hospital.
“If I’m in a pediatrics ward, I can keep up with families through the whole process,” she said.
For Alameddine, the ideal long-term outcome is to create her own venue for autism-specific care.
“I want to open up my own center one day,” she said. “My goal ultimately is to educate parents and provide services for children at that clinic.”
Ewing believes Alameddine has given herself every chance of making a difference.
“She’s spearheaded research on different intervention techniques, different screening protocols for children with autism,” Ewing said. “Very little early diagnosis and intervention is going on there — and as they get older, the problems become more intense. Noura hopes to change that.”
Leaving won’t be easy, but Alameddine sees in her rural community in Lebanon something she grew to love about UT Dallas.
“There’s just something about Lebanon that feels like home,” she said. “They kind of function similarly to UTD: a collectivist culture, homey and very welcoming. I think there’s a lot of potential for improvement, because people are now starting to realize that we can do better.”
Alameddine emphasized that educating parents and allaying their fears are essential components to autism care.
“When people tell them that this is untreatable and unsolvable — I’m here to tell you that’s not true,” she said. “Your child has the capacity to learn just like any other child. While it’s unfortunate that my cousin experienced this stigma, it really pushed me to pursue this career.”
If her ambitious plans hit a snag, Alameddine can still turn to Rollins, Ewing and those familiar voices at UT Dallas.
“She’s a UTD alumna. She still has access to the school,” Rollins said. “If she should get into a bind, if she really needs to ask a question, we’re just an email away.”
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].