Whether on wheels in a mobile unit or with her fingers flying across apps on a tablet, Dr. Robin Parker was determined to unlock the mysteries of autism.
Parker, who died Wednesday at 50 from pancreatic cancer, helped countless families cope, and thrive, with autism, a neurological disorder that leads to difficulty in communicating and socializing. Autism’s reach is broad, from severe to milder forms such as Asperger’s syndrome.
Parker’s reach was vast, too.
“She started working with my daughter 15 years ago and helped her learn to communicate with the world and live a life with respect,” said Mona Nasser. “My daughter is an adult now and because of the work Robin did she will be able to manage her life in a meaningful way. I’ve since had the privilege of calling her one of my best friends and she lived her life like she left it — with dignity, respect and compassion.”
Last year, Parker, a professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, spoke about “game changer” apps that could help patients merge into the mainstream through improved communication.
“These apps are clearly helping our kids and adults do what everyone else is doing,” she told the Miami Herald. “Touch technology,” which she helped develop and used in her practice, helped people process information.
“It’s a good universal design that helps people with or without disabilities,” Parker said. “Before, we taught only one way. We were effectively excluding and segregating people. With these technologies we are truly making our society more inclusive.”
Teresa Becerra, president of the Autism Society of Miami-Dade, posted a message on Facebook about Parker’s role in her son Robert’s life. “Dr. Robin Parker was a beautiful woman who gave Robert an incredible gift. She guided him on the iPad and taught him to communicate with it. Robert would not be where he is today without you,” she wrote.
“That became her passion, developing applications to help communicate better,” said her husband of 26 years, Dr. Glenn Parker. The two met when both were students at Boyd H. Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes. “She said I was cheating off her in science,” he said, chuckling. “She forgave me. We started dating in college and have been together ever since. She’s the most wonderful person in the world.”
Years later, in 2008, Parker, who was also a consulting director at the University of Miami-NSU Center for Autism Related Disabilities, or CARD, helped pioneer the use of the UM/NSU CARD Mobile Autism Van to reach families in under-served communities through the use of a rolling autism clinic. The CARD clinic provided care to about 4,000 people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.
Parker was responding to a growing need. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 50 children in 2013 was affected by autism, a 72 percent increase from a 2007 survey. The large bump was attributed to parents’ reports of increased diagnoses of milder forms of the disorder.
Parker, along with friend and Nova professor Carole Zangari, began the autism blog, Practical AAC, 2 1/2 years ago to help educate people about autism. The two met 20 years ago when Parker was studying for her doctorate in speech pathology at Nova and Zangari was her dissertation adviser. Parker earned her doctorate in September 2000. The New York-born Parker had previously earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in speech pathology at Florida State University.
“Her passion was helping people like therapists and special educators help children with autism,” Zangari said. “The blog was a happy place for her. She was all about helping individuals who can’t speak gain a voice.”
Wren Newman, executive director of the speech pathology program at Nova, said the department’s mission will now include spotlighting the work of Parker.
“We’ll make sure she is not forgotten. Our students will know about her and her work,” Newman said. “She was positive and gave families hope and strategies to implement with their children. In the 30 years I’ve been in this field, I can’t think of a positive descriptor that I couldn’t use about Robin.”
Parker is survived by her husband Glenn, daughter Sarah, son Michael, her parents Lenore and David Rosenthal, her sister Cari Smith, brother-in-law Alan Smith, and nieces Rachel Smith and Heather Smith Bitterman, “and our dog Annie, a Shih Tzu; she was the most important ‘person’ in her life,” said her husband.
Services will be held at 9 a.m. Friday at Star of David Memorial Gardens Cemetery and Funeral Chapel, 7701 Bailey Rd., North Lauderdale.