SDSU Brain, Environment, and Language Lab
The SDSU Brain, Environment, and Language Lab focuses on supporting outcomes of diverse autistic individuals in the transition to adulthood. We study how language and social drivers of health shape individual experiences. Our goal is to partner with autistic individuals and communities to enhance communication environments across the lifespan.

Autism in Adulthood: Bridging Community, Services, and Research

Initiative Categories


Focus Areas

  • Cultural Responsiveness
  • Health Equity
  • Neurodiversity
  • Social Determinants of Health


We developed an interprofessional initiative with community partners in the transborder U.S.–Mexico region to better understand the transition to adulthood for autistic youth, given the intersection of neurodiversity with cultural and linguistic diversity. This ongoing initiative began in January 2023 when Dr. Teresa Girolamo joined San Diego State University and opened the Brain, Environment, and Language Lab.

With funding from NIH and ASHFoundation and support from senior mentor, Dr. Sonja Pruitt-Lord, our lab connected with interdisciplinary faculty in psychology (Dr. Inna Fishman, Dr. Jillian Wiggins) and special education (Dr. Laura J. Hall, Dr. Jessica Suhrheinrich) to learn more about autism at SDSU and in the community. These initial conversations helped lay groundwork for understanding how to enhance the campus community for diverse autistic students ranging in communication profiles and access needs. At the same time, the lab (PI: Girolamo) carried out a study on the role of social drivers of health in racially and ethnically minoritized autistic adolescents and adults. Findings showed that both language and social drivers of health—sense of community, unmet service needs, and barriers to services—played a role in communication and person-centered outcomes (e.g., self-determination). Our community partners asked us to translate these findings into action. Priority areas of need were: 1) unmet service needs, especially in post-secondary settings when autistic individuals age out of public education, and 2) providing neurodiversity-affirming supports that target the environment.

Thus, in Fall 2023, we connected with staff across campus from units that serve autistic students (Center for Autism, Center for Inclusive Excellence, Center for Student Rights & Responsibilities, University Police Department, Student Disability Services, and Psychiatric Crisis Assessment Support Team), interdisciplinary professionals (San Diego Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities), and autistic-led community organizations (Mentoring Autistic Minds, a partner of Autism Society San Diego and San Diego County Committee for Persons with Disabilities). We led customized workshops and hosted community outreach sessions. The goal of all activities was to engage in interprofessional education and lay groundwork for interprofessional collaboration by sharing our understanding of language in autism and to learn from partners about service delivery and access needs from different perspectives.

To date, we have 100% engagement from campus units and partners—and a clearer understanding of how to develop culturally responsive, neurodiversity-affirming supports for diverse autistic individuals in the transition to adulthood that respond to community priorities. We even learned about a campus worker who created an app for community workers and are planning to integrate information on responsive communication, given the intersection of cultural and linguistic diversity with neurodiversity. We are hosting a workshop at SDSU in partnership with Mentoring Autistic Minds next month to bring together campus partners and community. Our next steps are to obtain extramural funding to support developing supports for diverse autistic youth and adults in the transition to adulthood. As a university-based lab, we also aim to train the next generation of students from the community who will become clinicians and clinician scientists to carry on this work.

For More Information

Contact Teresa Girolamo at

This initiative was submitted on May 13, 2024.

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