The Philadelphia Autism Project

Bring your Lunch and Learn about the Philadelphia Autism Project — a citywide initiative with the goal of examining the services and supports for individuals and families who are living with autism in Philadelphia. Joan Erney, Dennis O’Brien, and Katy Kaplan, Ph.D. will discuss the history of autism services in Pennsylvania and the development of the Philadelphia Autism Project, current initiatives, and next steps.

Newly Released Person First Guidelines

Just-Released: Person First Guidelines

Words are among the most powerful tools for communication that human beings have at their disposal. They can be used to heal, affirm motivate, inform, build capacity and consensus, inspire, praise, and educate. Unwittingly, and often with no intent at malice, they can be used to minimize, marginalize, pathologize, stigmatize and oppress.

The fields of alcohol and other drug treatment and mental health services collectively referred to as behavioral health have long used words to diagnose and label individuals and families by their (respective) challenges. This is taught in colleges and universities as the way in which we identify people and the challenges for which they present with care. However, this labeling has a tendency to elicit pity or sympathy, create oppressive situations, cast people and families in a negative light and/or in “victim” roles and perpetuate negative stereotypes.

Labeling people and families by their challenges (e.g. homeless, alcoholic, addict, schizophrenic, diabetic etc.) also tends to dehumanize, disenfranchise and reduce the person or family to being that challenge, instead of someone living with, in recovery from or experiencing symptoms of it.

The field of behavioral health services is historically paternalistic in its approach to working with people and families. Social healing words (strengths-based language) help the field eliminate that paternalism and move away from doing things to and for people and families to doing things with them.

Learning a new language, especially for adults, is often challenging. Many people in the behavioral health field were trained to label the people and families with whom they work. Insurance companies pay for diagnoses rather than, wellness and healing. Thankfully, large systems employing vast numbers of people have begun to reevaluate such ideologies as illness in the workforce costs companies billions of dollars each year in lost productivity. The art is in recognizing the use of words that are grounded in the strengths and capacities of people and families. This recognition promotes whole health (physical, emotional,social spiritual), improved outcomes and healing.

The following work represents years of thinking affirmatively about people, families and communities and how best to support their journeys to wellness. Some believe that moving away from deficit language devalues their work and diminishes their roles as experts who have spent years getting their educations and working in their fields. Conversely others feel relief that they do not always need to be the expert. One person working in a community-based program in DC related that he found his work less taxing because he was stepping out of the way to promote people deciding their own courses of care. We believe there is little cost associated with changing language rather the benefits are immeasurable in terms of better outcomes and more collaborative relationships with people receiving services, their families and their communities.

Click HERE to access the full guidelines or see below.

Just-Released: Final Evaluation of the Porch Light Study

The Yale School of Medicine spent four years evaluating our Porch Light program – a collaborative endeavor of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and DBHIDS that aims to catalyze positive changes in the community, improve the physical environment, create opportunities for social connectedness, develop skills to enhance resilience and recovery, promote community and social inclusion, shed light on challenges faced by those with behavioral health issues, reduce stigma, and encourage empathy. More information about the Porch Light Project can be found HERE.

Now they are ready to share the evaluation results.

The evaluation was guided by a theory of change that specifies how certain neighborhood characteristics, collective efficacy among residents and aesthetic qualities of the neighborhood, can reduce established health risks associated with neighborhood decay and disorder. Public murals were expected to enhance these neighborhood characteristics in the short-term so as to promote long-term community health. The Porch Light theory of change also specifies how creation of a public mural by individuals with mental health or substance abuse challenges can reduce behavioral health stigma and enhance individual recovery and resilience. In collaboration with Porch Light stakeholders, the research team developed a logic model based on this underlying theory of change to guide the evaluation and examine community and individual-level outcomes.

The Porch Light Evaluation was part of a larger initiative, the Philadelphia Community Health Project (PCHP), conducted in collaboration with DBHIDS. The purpose of pchp was twofold: to identify appropriate comparison neighborhoods and participants from behavioral health agencies in Philadelphia for the Porch Light Evaluation, and to provide additional data to DBHIDS on the well-being, service use, and neighborhood conditions experienced by persons receiving behavioral health services. Porch Light and PCHP neighborhoods and agencies were matched on key characteristics, including conditions of neighborhood decay and disorder as well as demographic and neighborhood risk indicators, so as to enhance the scientific rigor of the evaluation.


After almost two years, residents living within one mile of more than one newly installed mural reported:

  • A sustained relative increase in collective efficacy, including social cohesion and trust among neighbors as well as informal neighborhood social control.
  • A modest but sustained relative increase in perceptions of neighborhood aesthetic quality, including the quality of the walking environment and perceived neighborhood safety.
  • A promising and sustained relative decrease (again at a statistical trend) in stigma toward individuals with mental health or substance abuse challenges.

Full findings from the study that highlight the effectiveness of Porch Light program murals are available HERE.

This evaluation was made possible by funding from: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Independence Foundation, The Philadelphia Foundation, The Patricia Kind Family Foundation, Hummingbird Foundation, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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