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Updated: November 27, 2023 / 2023 Champions of Health Care

Champions of Health Care: Dufresne helps children with autism bolster their independence

A woman sits at her desk, writing on a piece of paper with a pen. PHOTO | Courtesy of Autism Allies Susan Dufresne, director of clinical services at Autism Allies

It was Susan Dufresne’s childhood that prepared her to spend the last 50 years helping people, particularly children and young adults with developmental disabilities. It’s a career choice requiring compassion, patience, and a keen work ethic.

“That comes from my mom and dad,” Dufresne said, recalling her childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

The message she received from her parents while growing up was clear: work hard and also work hard to help others. She describes being taken door-to-door for volunteer efforts with her mother, everything from meal deliveries to selling Easter seals.

“My dad was always, 'Be an independent thinker. Do all that you can in every day,'” Dufresne said.

A bio box on Susan Dufresne, 2023 Mental Health Provider of the Year
Susan Dufresne bio box

The eldest of three, Dufresne grew up with younger children in her home. Her youngest sibling, a sister 12 years younger than her, first prompted an interest in childhood development.

As a teen, Dufresne explored her interest in working with children the way many young people do: She took babysitting courses with the American Red Cross and provided her services to the neighborhood. She recalls caring for a neighbor across the street, a young girl living with cerebral palsy, which was a formative experience for Dufresne.

Flash forward 50 years and Dufresne is the director of clinical services at Autism Allies Inc., a Massachusetts-based company specializing in using applied behavioral analysis to help clients diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder develop skills to bolster their independence. She officially joined the company at its founding, on a part-time basis, while she worked in other residential programs around Central Massachusetts. The field was recently developing. In 2010, An Act Relative to Insurance Coverage for Autism, known as ARICA, was passed in Massachusetts, requiring private health insurers to provide coverage for diagnoses and treatments related to ASD, making healthcare groups like Autism Allies Inc. possible.

Now, more than a decade later, Dufresne leads the organization's clinical services while still taking on clients around her administrative duties. Because, as she puts it, that’s how she likes her days.

“I don’t think I would be enjoying any clinical position in which I wasn’t having any direct contact or work with children,” Dufresne said.

This kind of dedication is what she’s known for. Jennifer Toth, director of pupil services at Uxbridge Public Schools, worked with Dufresne from 2019 to 2021 at ARCHway, a residential school for children with disabilities. Toth described Dufresne as extremely involved in her work with her clients, even while that work can be very complex and require her to oversee client support from multiple angles.

“She’s somebody who’s a doer,” Toth said. “She steps up. She’s present. She’s involved.”

Dufresne’s approach, from Toth’s perspective, is versatility.

Toth described a colleague who is always assessing whether treatment and care are specific and effective enough from client to client, and when she is unsure about a concept or an approach, she speaks up kindly.

“She’s an initiator,” Toth said. “She’s someone who will question when things don’t seem right … If she doesn’t agree, she’s able to do so with a level of feedback that’s more about [coming] to agreement.”

With such a high level of commitment to her field — her clients, her company, their collective mission — one might expect Dufresne to turn inward during her off hours. That is not the case. When Dufresne clocks out, the care continues at home, for rescue animals. Currently, she has two cats, but she’s also over the years had a bunny, ducks, and ferrets. When she’s not taking care of them, she’s taking care of her garden. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what Dufresne is all about.

“I like to see things get better,” she said. “I like growth.”

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