By Eliott Rodriguez

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – At a visit to Cristal Academy in Coral Gables, it is quite clear that Dr. Michael Alessandri, or as they call him ‘Dr. Michael’, seems to belong here.

While interacting and playing with the kids at the school, who are all on the autism spectrum, it is hard to say who is a bigger fan of who.

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As executive director of the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD), Alessandri has worked tirelessly to create and deliver unique services and programs for people with autism.

Any chance to see the impact firsthand is fulfilling.

“A lot of what I do now is administrative and bureaucratic, managing grants and budgets,” Alessandri said.

He has roles as administrator, researcher, professor, and advocate.

His work is a calling, one he can pinpoint to the very day when he was 18-years-old.

Alessandri had a job at a summer camp for special needs kids and was paired with a nonverbal autistic boy.

“It was like a lightning bolt through my heart,” he said. “It set me on my path and I’m a better human being because of that day.”

He knew then and there what he would do for the rest of his life.

“I wanted to be the person that these people can depend on from day one, and throughout their lives,” he said.

The psychology major set a goal.

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“I had a vision of creating a campus-based autism center for people with autism a university community connection,” he said.

That chance came about in 1996 at the University of Miami’s innovative program and he jumped on board relocating from California.

Today, UM-NSU CARD offers free consultation, resources, research, training, and educational support for over 14,000 families from Broward to the Florida Keys.

“Looking back now, 29 years since the CARD centers were started, there’s still virtually nothing like it anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world. I think I found the space where I’m meant to be,” he said.

Just ask anyone who knows him, like Mary Palacio-Pike.

She founded the Crystal Academy so that she and other parents of kids with autism could gain needed resources and services partnering with UM NSU CARD.

“Michael is a true leader and it’s pure heart,” said Palacio-Pike.

She adds that he is accessible 24/7 and truly cares deeply for the families.

Dr. Alessandri’s list of fans and awards is long, most recently he was recognized for his 25 years of commitment and passion to this cause at the organization’s annual gala Tropical Nights in December 2021.

Looking ahead, with one in 44 children now being diagnosed with autism, the work seems daunting.

But Alessandri is determined not only to make life richer for those impacted through science and technology – but he has also hope for an even greater goal.

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“At the end of the day, you want someone to feel like they live in a world where they are accepted not just accepted but understood and appreciated for their uniqueness.”

Eliott Rodriguez