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Ashley Murphy (she/her)

PhD Candidate in the Clinical Psychology Program

Ashley Murphy (she/her)

I greatly admire the disability self-advocates who work tirelessly to ensure that every individual has the support they need to thrive within the community.”

Ashley Murphy is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology Program in the Feinberg School of Medicine. Her research focuses on addressing voids in access to development-focused therapies and how to effectively engage and empower parents of kids with disabilities in their children’s care. Ashley is a Presidential Fellow, which is the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern University.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I study how we can improve disability therapies within publicly funded systems, such as in schools, child
welfare agencies, and early intervention services. In particular, I am interested in how we can improve therapies for autistic children in early childhood and how we can better involve families in therapies. When parents and other family members are involved as "co-therapists" in therapy services, children receive more practice with therapy skills in more environments. This can help them master new skills as well as figure out how to use developmental skills in a manner that works for their day-to-day lives.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
When I was in college, I fully intended to go to medical school. After going through the application process, I attended the welcome day at my chosen medical school at the end of my senior year only to have a gut feeling that this was not the right path for me. After taking a class on community-engaged research in developmental neuroscience, I became fascinated with how small day-to-day actions could make a huge impact on child development, especially for children with developmental disabilities. I decided to teach special education for two years, during which I realized I wanted to explore how we could improve systems of care to equitably promote child development in the settings in which children most often interact.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
Prior to pursuing a career in research, I taught special education at a Chicago charter school. When I was leading individual education program meetings for students on my caseload, I was struck by how little my students and their families were included in decisions about their services and in helping each child reach the goals set by the team. I became interested in understanding what parents need to best engage in school-based therapies for children with disabilities and found that parent needs were largely unmet. This led to my creating and validating the Parent Therapist Partnership Survey to help parents and school-based providers explore what parents need to engage in school-based services. (You can gain free access to this survey here.)

What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
My career has taken a lot of twists and turns that I could not have predicted when I was younger. However, I don't believe any of these steps were mistakes I learned so much from each stage, and I strive to continue following my gut and pursuing opportunities that align with my values of authenticity, equity, and intentionality. I have found myself switching my mindset from planning for a specific career goal to responding to new opportunities and seeing where they take me.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I greatly admire the disability self-advocates who work tirelessly to ensure that every individual has the support they need to thrive within the community. As a result of the many friendships I have made in this community, I strive to develop support that empowers disabled individuals to leverage their strengths to live the lives they want to live instead of focusing on the challenges or deficits each individual (disabled or not) has.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
It is no secret at this point that disability-focused therapies can have huge impacts on a child's developmental trajectory. However, many children with disabilities and their families face extensive barriers to accessing these therapies, particularly during critical developmental periods in early childhood. I think my work has the potential to improve service delivery in the settings in which children most frequently interact, such as school or other community agencies. By collaborating with community partners to determine how to meet children and families where they are, we have the opportunity to improve developmental support and help children best leverage their strengths to thrive.

Why Northwestern?
When applying to graduate school, I was very impressed with Northwestern's focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and using innovative, practical solutions to address societal problems. I have found so much support and so many valuable resources at Northwestern that have undoubtedly propelled my work forward.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I love to rewatch my comfort shows – my partner and I have watched Scrubs, Psych, and Parks and Rec more times than I can count!

How would your closest friends describe you?
My closest friends have told me that I can come across as very serious and reserved at first (I am a big introvert, so it can take a while to warm up in larger groups or with folks I don't know as well). However, once folks get to know me, my friends share that I become a goofy, kind-hearted person who always has a silly joke or pun ready to throw into conversation.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
When I was little, I wanted to be a pastry chef. However, I learned that chefs have to wake up very early in the morning to prepare the pastries. Since I am very much not a morning person, I decided that I would stick to recreational baking :)

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Decide what values are most important to you and make decisions that align with them. It's easy to become swayed by power and prestige, but the decisions that will make you happiest are those that align with what is most important to you.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I am really excited to start working on my dissertation. I will be collaborating with community partners to co-develop the prototype of an intervention to help parents more actively participate in early childhood special education therapies.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I am proud of the community partnerships I have made within the disability community and with families of children with disabilities.

Published: September 26, 2023

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