Real-World Learning

Saint Joseph’s and Thomas Jefferson Autism Physician Specialists Partnership Welcomes First Student

Bridget Cichon and a camper at Camp Kinney

Bridget Cichon '20 works at Camp Kinney. Photo courtesy of the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support..

As an undergraduate at Saint Joseph’s, Bridget Cichon was looking for an on-campus job where she could make a difference. 

“I wasn’t interested in a job where I sit behind a desk and play with my thumbs,” says Cichon ’20, a biology and autism behavioral studies major. Her RA was already working at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support as part of its national-model SCHOLARS (Students Committed to Helping Others Learn about Autism Research and Support) program and knew that Cichon liked working with other people and kids. She suggested Cichon give it a try.  

Bridget Cichon
Bridget Cichon '20

“I fell in love with it immediately,” says Cichon. “Through my work there, I realized that I had room in my academic schedule to add a second major in autism behavioral studies.”

That decision recently culminated with Cichon becoming the first student to be admitted to Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College as part of a new partnership with Saint Joseph’s aimed at filling a critical gap in physicians trained to work with and provide care for patients on the autism spectrum. 

The program, which launched this year, gives Saint Joseph’s students majoring or minoring in autism behavioral studies the chance to link college to medical school at Jefferson's Sidney Kimmel Medical College. Qualified students have the chance enter Jefferson medical school without having to take the MCAT after graduation.

Joseph McCleery, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and executive director of academic programs in the Kinney Center, says it has been a privilege to watch Cichon grow during her time at Saint Joseph’s. 

“Bridget is unique in that not only does she have a biology major and the coursework and the research training that comes along with that, she also has autism behavioral studies major coursework and over 2,000 hours of applied experience with Kinney Center clients on the autism spectrum,” says McCleery. 

For Cichon, what started as a job at the Kinney Center has become her life’s passion. She credits the hands-on experience she received throughout her time at Saint Joseph’s, both within and outside of her involvement with Kinney, with preparing her for life’s next steps, both in medical school and beyond.

“The type of experience that I’ve gotten at SJU just isn't offered on other campuses,” she says. “I really got to delve into what it was like to work with other people, the autism population in particular.” 

The type of experience that I’ve gotten at SJU just isn't offered on other campuses. I really got to delve into what it was like to work with other people, the autism population in particular.” 

Bridget Cichon ’20

Cichon also credits Saint Joseph’s Jesuit ties and its emphasis on caring for an individual as a whole person. “The philosophy encompasses how someone might have autism, but that doesn't define them,” she says. “Going forward, I know that my patients aren't just their symptoms, they’re so much more than that.”

The program with Thomas Jefferson requires participants to have an ACT score of 30 or a minimum composite SAT score (critical reading and math) of 1350 with no score in either section below 650. Students must maintain a 3.5 overall grade point average and complete all Medical College Scholar program requirements, including 500 hours working directly with individuals with autism. 

Participants who meet the requirements are admitted to the medical school without submitting MCAT scores. Those who aren’t accepted or do not complete the SCHOLARS program can still take the MCATs and apply through the traditional route.  

“America’s health-care system remains woefully underprepared to deal with this unique, growing population in medical settings outside of autism-specific interventions,” Mark Tykocinski, M.D., provost of Thomas Jefferson University and The Anthony F. and Gertrude M. DePalma Dean of the Sidney Kimmel Medical College, said when the program launched earlier this year. “By preparing future physicians, we will fundamentally change medical care for individuals with autism.” 

Students will also participate in a six-week funded summer experience at Jefferson and get the opportunity to pursue research at Saint Joseph’s under the direction of McCleery. The program builds on Saint Joseph’s SCHOLARS program, where current undergraduate students work part-time to support Kinney's autism programming. 

McCleery expects the same success Cichon has found at Saint Joseph’s will follow her to medical school. 

“She performs exceptionally in academics, and she has a very high skill level in a clinical setting,” says McCleery. “I can give her almost anything to do and with the right initial guidance, she can enact it -- not only in research, but also in coursework and in a clinical setting as well. She's been able to capitalize on every opportunity that’s been presented to her because she’s so capable.”