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A student studying on a bench under the trees.

A Legacy of Understanding

Joanne Onstine-Dill ’71,’73 supports graduate students at the Koegel Autism Center

Twenty years after her retirement as a school speech pathologist, Joanne Onstine-Dill recounts one case. A toddler had been expelled from preschool; her overwhelmed mother didn’t know how to help. Joanne diagnosed the girl with autism, and by third grade, she could learn and play with her classmates at school. The diagnosis opened doors for the family. The girl’s mother visited Joanne every year for advice.

Joanne received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech and hearing at UC Santa Barbara in the 1970s. Autism was not part of the training then, and Joanne is proud that UC Santa Barbara is now home to the Koegel Autism Center, a respected center for research, evaluation and support. After 30 years of service to schools, she continues to impact the field through her philanthropic support of the Koegel Center.

Led by director Ty Vernon and clinical director Anna Krasno — who both hold doctorates of counseling, clinical and school psychology from UCSB — the Koegel Center focuses on developing and implementing strength-based, motivational support services, interventions and psychological evaluations for individuals with autism and their families.

Over her career as a speech pathologist for Oregon’s Greater Albany Public School District — first on-site and then in an assessment center — Onstine- Dill participated in many student evaluations. She recalls that clinicians first treated the behavior, not the underlying cause. As the understanding of autism evolved, so did her interest.

“I had to learn this diagnosis the hard way, by connecting with others who knew, interviewing parents and putting information together for that ‘aha’ moment,” says Joanne. “At assessment dinners, parents would say to me, ‘I’m so relieved that my child has a diagnosis.’”

At UC Santa Barbara, Joanne’s philanthropy supports research and clinical training for doctoral students in clinical psychology and special education.

“The Koegel Autism Center is unique in that it is primarily staffed by graduate students who are training to become future leaders in the field of autism research,” says Vernon. “The center relies heavily on the generous philanthropy of donors like Joanne Onstine-Dill to fund our graduate student researchers in their efforts to develop paradigm-shifting programs and support initiatives for autistic individuals.”

“I am incredibly grateful for the donor support that has allowed me to conduct my dissertation,” says Maria Jimenez Munoz, a doctoral candidate who received her master’s in counseling psychology from UCSB in 2021. “The funds have been able to support the recruitment of over 20 families for a large-scale project aimed at increasing the accessibility of intensive in-home therapy for families across the United States. It is wonderful to see how alumni donations support research endeavors that have a direct clinical impact on participants.”

This ripple effect is what Joanne hoped for with her support of the Koegel Autism Center. “When you train one person, they’re going to go out and potentially connect with thousands of lives during their career,” she says.