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April 30, 2019

Liliane Savard is an associate faculty member in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, a physical therapist, a member of CDCI's Community Advisory Council, a LEND fellow, Disability Studies Certificate student and Ph.D. candidate. She has recently worked to form the Vermont Autism Collaborative.


Liliane grew up in Quebec and she went to Université de Montréal where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Physical Therapy. After graduation, she moved to California in the pursuit of exploration, learning English, and an internship opportunity at Rancho Los Amigos, a leader in the world of physical therapy practice and rehabilitation. While interested in continuing her education, Liliane moved back East to New Hampshire to start a family and worked in pediatric private practice and schools. Eventually, Liliane and her family moved to Vermont, which made pursuing her Ph.D. much more feasible and offered many opportunities for activities for her family. “My partner developed a consulting business and we could really live anywhere so we looked to get closer to our family and found Montpelier!” Liliane shared. “I still wanted to work on a Ph.D. and the proximity to UVM was attractive. Most of all, we loved that Montpelier had sidewalks, the kids could walk to school, be free to grow in a closed knit community and we were surrounded by mountains and lots of outdoor play opportunities!”

During her time in Vermont, Liliane’s life has been busy. In addition to raising her children, she worked as a school-based therapist for Montpelier Public Schools until 2018 through her own physical therapy practice called Zippy Life Physical Therapy. Since November, Liliane’s focus has shifted to teaching a pediatric neurology course in the Doctorate of Physical Therapy program in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences while she finishes her Ph.D. in the Department of Clinical and Translational Sciences. Other Physical Therapy faculty members Debbie O'Rourke and Peggy Owen-Sands encouraged Liliane to also consider the LEND fellowship, which she combined with CDCI’s Certificate of Disability Studies, which in turn connected her to CDCI’s Community Advisory Council. “Deborah Lisi-Baker [former certificate coordinator and CDCI Associate Director] guided my discovery of the long route to the disability rights movements and the current issues facing the community of people with disabilities here in Vermont,” Liliane said. These connections have helped Savard to dive deeper into her passions of life-long learning, research, and inclusion. 

The Vermont Autism Collaborative

“I am very passionate about learning, about helping others achieve their potential and about full inclusion in society,” Liliane shared. “I am also a dancer and a musician and my research interests focus on understanding how we control our movements and develop skilled gesture.” For some individuals with autism, motor control can be challenging or delayed. Liliane became interested in finding ways to remove some of these barriers: “As I worked with children with autism, it became clear to me that I wanted to research and understand how to help them have better control over their movements so they could play with others and have more communication options.”

In thinking about how she would study movement, Liliane took note of some of the practices she encountered in the disability studies certificate and through CDCI. “I figured out that the issues we discussed and the research questions I had would be better answered and addressed if I created a team with common interests around me,” she said. “With the CAC as a model for inclusion of self-advocates and parents of children with autism, I connected with Patricia Prelock, who is one of my mentors for my Ph.D. She liked the idea of getting all the autism-related researchers together to help each other recruit for research and exchange on research priorities.” Out of these discussions, Liliane created the Vermont Autism Collaborative: “We share a vision for interprofessional work and the mission of improving quality of life for people with autism and their family in Vermont.”

With university and community connections, the collaborative quickly gained momentum. Liliane shared that the "group has been unwavering in their interest to work together, inviting self-advocates and parents to join and working to put in place a structure and processes so it grows in strength.” As the collaborative works to cement its place within Vermont and the university, the group continues to share and build resources. One such method of communicating has been through a newsletter that provides “stakeholders with research opportunities, inclusive recreational offerings and training for professionals working with people with autism.” 

What’s Next

While she finishes her Ph.D. program, continues to teach, works on projects like Learn to Ride Your 2-Wheeler for children with complex needs, participates on CDCI’s Advisory Council, and raises four teenagers, Liliane hopes to enhance the Vermont Autism Collaborative and further develop her partnership with CDCI. Understandably, all of this can be overwhelming. “As a middle age woman, mother and clinician, I feel it is hard to try and become a good teacher and researcher.” Liliane shared, but she credits the examples her parents set for her in their own pursuits for education as adult learners and the former students she used to work with as more than enough motivation to keep going.

“What keeps me going is the thought of some of my former students with autism and their struggle to communicate and have a place in the community… I am really looking forward to having the knowledge from my Ph.D. degree about using a variety of sources of information to support change in practice and policy.” Liliane shared. “I am so fortunate to be able to devote this time and energy to making connections with people and with knowledge. I feel I have to share my many privileges to empower and serve people who face injustice and lack of opportunity.”

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