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Striving for More Early Diagnosis

Ed.M. candidate Tuba Rashid Khan researches developmental disabilities and early diagnosis in medicine.

Tuba Rashid KhanTuba Rashid Khan comes from a family of businessmen and women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But she strayed from the family profession, choosing instead to study medicine, education, and public health, after being influenced by another family member: her brother, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

Khan, an Ed.M. candidate in the Human Development and Psychology Program studying under the child advocacy strand, remembers watching her mother — a well-respected banker — drive two hours each day before and after work to ensure that her brother would receive speech and physical therapy. The UAE, like many parts of the world, was and remains limited in their educational offerings for children and adults with developmental disabilities. That influenced Khan’s thinking.

“I wanted to be a pediatrician to work with special needs children,” Khan says. “But when I started working with them, I realized there were many factors that go into understanding the challenges that affect their health.”

After attending medical school in Pakistan, Khan took a position working at a school for children with special needs in the UAE — a move that would dramatically alter her future. While working there, she began to see students with a range of developmental disabilities, the majority on the Autism spectrum.

Many of the children she saw weren’t diagnosed until almost five or six years old, compared to earlier in the United States, where many parents notice their child’s limited eye contact or inability to relay needs through gestures – markers of Autism – and thus receive a diagnosis by age two or three.

“Education about autism is really lacking there,” she says. “The UAE has money but focuses on tourism so it doesn’t have the leadership or education on issues like autism or developmental disabilities. Many areas in the world need help with early diagnosis.”

During a doctor’s visit, a parent [in places like the United States] may bring attention to a child not speaking or toilet training at a particular age, she says, but in many countries, especially developing, signs are often less known. Early diagnosis can aid in growth among children with developmental disabilities leading to better, more fulfilling lives.

Additionally, Khan noticed that though the school’s educators were passionate and caring for the 140 students, few had received advanced education in special needs, which limited what could be offered to many children.

She applied to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health intent on focusing on underserved populations in developing countries and immunizations. However, by the time she actually found herself on the Chan School campus, Khan’s interest in children with special needs completely captivated her. She began researching early diagnosis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and conducting research through Boston Children’s Hospital helping Nigerian community workers identify children with autism and developmental issues.

When she wasn’t in class, Khan grappled with how to provide the best care for children with developmental disabilities and recognized that it requires the workings of three areas together:  physical health; educational needs, which impact a child’s mental health and how to be in society; and public health or how society provides what is needed for the child.

After earning her master’s in public health, at the encouragement of a mentor Khan looked to the Ed School to help fill in the piece about educational needs. “I never thought about a doctor getting an educational degree,” she says, acknowledging that education is a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to the medical world treating children, especially those with developmental disabilities.

For instance, all Khan has to do is consider her brother’s experience today as a young man with so much to offer but still limited based on what his country can do.

Since coming to the Ed School, Khan has continued to focus her research on developmental disabilities. Currently, she interns at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Advocating for Success Program, where she works with a team of developmental specialists, pediatricians, special educational advisers, and social workers to provide the best solutions for children with developmental disabilities.

“It’s amazing to work with this team, because at times I resonate with the education specialist, at other times with the pediatrician or social worker,” she says. “It is amazing to see how I can implement all my knowledge together in practice.”

It was through her studies at HGSE that Khan joined forces with a Harvard Law School student and Harvard College student whom she met in a social entrepreneurship class. Together, they developed a research project, recently accepted and supported by MIT, that focuses on increasing access in early diagnoses of developmental disabilities in developing country through the aid of technology.

After graduation this spring, Khan plans to begin her medical residency in Texas where she’ll focus on neurodevelopmental disabilities. Once she completes her residency, Khan will have studied general pediatrics, child neurology, and development. Though some may view the different areas of study as excessive, Khan sees it as knowledge necessary to do her job to the best of her ability.

“When a child comes to me, they are getting someone who knows all aspects that plays a role in their lives. When a parent is bringing their child to me, I want them to know they are getting their best,” she says. “Kids are all like flowers. Special needs children are my daisies, which happens to be my favorite flowers.”