Psychologists with the University of Washington CARE Clinic diagnose and treat a range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, from autism and Asperger's syndrome to learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The clinic, which served 420 families from across the state last year, has a clientele ranging in age from 2-1/2 to 79.

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Lianne Miller once got so angry, she kicked the windshield of her father’s car until it shattered. Zach Saulness was suspended from school last year for threatening violence against his classmates.

Both Eastside teenagers — she’s 15, he’s 16 — were born with neurodevelopmental disabilities, making communication so difficult and frustrating that both often lashed out in violent tantrums or emotional meltdowns.

But that was before their mothers found the University of Washington’s CARE Clinic, where clinical and educational psychologists diagnose and treat a range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, from autism and Asperger’s syndrome to learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The CARE Clinic is one of 13 community-service organizations helped by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, now in its 32nd year. CARE is an acronym for Clinical services, Assessment, Research and professional Education.

The clinic offers individual and group counseling along with counseling for family members and spouses. But the clinic’s staff also helps families navigate a maze of services by collaborating with medical professionals and school officials, and developing plans to deal with the residential, vocational, social, financial and sometimes legal issues their clients face.

Last year, the CARE Clinic served approximately 420 families.

There is such a dearth of services in the state for those with neurodevelopmental disabilities, especially adults, that some clients make weekly trips to Seattle from as far away as Bellingham and Yakima. The clinic’s youngest client is 2 ½, and the eldest is 79.

Most of the clinic’s therapists are doctoral students from Seattle universities. The clinic offers them a unique training ground, where they can help people with neurodevelopmental disabilities attain independence and lead successful lives.

A disproportionate number of people with neurological differences also battle mental-health issues such as depression and anxiety. So a big part of what Director Julie Osterling and her staff do is teach clients empowerment and self-advocacy skills.

“If you start to see yourself as incapable, you think you can’t do anything. When they come here, we show them how to be successful because we understand the underlying neurological roadblocks,” Osterling said.

Putting pieces together

Carolyn and Bill Miller, of Medina, adopted Lianne from a Chinese orphanage when she was 7 months old. By the time Lianne was 4 or 5, the Millers decided to seek help.

“The intensity of Lianne’s anger sometimes was overwhelming. It just seemed over the top,” her father said.

Case in point, the windshield story: Bill and Lianne were driving home from Ellensburg a few years ago and passed a Taco del Mar restaurant on the highway. Lianne wanted her dad to stop but didn’t say anything — and became enraged when he continued driving.

Lianne was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on a slew of medications, but something about the diagnosis “just never seemed right,” Carolyn said. Meanwhile, her relationship with her daughter was a rocky one, where seemingly innocent conversations could quickly turn into conflicts.

“You talk to people about things that go on and they can’t relate. It’s very isolating,” Carolyn said.

About a year ago, Carolyn heard about the CARE Clinic and took Lianne for an evaluation. Turns out the bright, sarcastic girl who loves animals wasn’t bipolar after all. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD. Her therapist, Liliana Sacarin, worked with officials in the Bellevue and Highline school districts to find the right educational fit for Lianne, now a freshman at Newport High School. “She’s getting all As. She’s doing great,” Carolyn said of her daughter, who is in a special-education class. “The clinic has really put the pieces together for us … They don’t want to be a one-size-fits-all kind of place. That’s just not how it is there.”

Sacarin taught Lianne how to advocate for herself and express her needs — and helped Carolyn realize she was “a helicopter mom,” hovering too close to allow Lianne her independence. Mother and daughter now laugh more than they fight, and both have learned to back off when things get heated.

“I feel more responsible for my life, for the choices I can and can’t make,” Lianne said. “I find it really easy to talk to Liliana.”

Like Lianne, Zach Saulness looks forward to his appointments with his CARE psychologist, Julie Davies. Though his mom, Deanne Martin, would like Zach to see Davies weekly, the divorced mother of five can only afford twice-monthly sessions.

Still, the changes she’s seen in her second-eldest — who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler — have been remarkable: “He went from multiple meltdowns a week to no meltdowns,” said Martin, who lives with her children, ages 8 to 18, in Woodinville.

Davies, she said, “is giving him positive ways to think of himself … He knows he has a disability and doesn’t like it but she helps him see he is very, very smart.”

Zach — who is obsessed with dinosaurs and cartoons — has a thick folder filled with his drawings. He’s created a villain named Raptor Z, who was once human but was so jealous of Japanese-anime hero Astro Boy that he turned evil.

“Sometimes I feel like the cartoons I see,” he said. Once, Zach said, he threw his cereal outside — something he’d seen SpongeBob SquarePants do.

“His emotional pendulum swings very wide, so he uses cartoons to relate to how he’s feeling,” his mom explained.

Martin, who split from her husband three years ago, said the transition was especially hard on Zach, now a sophomore at Woodinville High School.

Zach “isn’t a violent kid” but was suspended from school for a month last year after making threatening statements, Martin said. That’s when she found the CARE Clinic, which hasn’t just helped her son, but also helped Martin feel better about herself as a parent.

Davies has given Zach notebooks and encouraged him in his artwork. She’s also taught him communication techniques to better express how he’s feeling, his mom said.

She said Davies also provides her with important support: “She’ll say, ‘You’ve got your hands full,’ or ‘Hang in there.’ Just knowing he feels good about going there makes me feel better. When he isn’t doing well, it sets a hard pace for the entire family.”

Martin said when Zach enters adulthood, the CARE Clinic will help him through that transition, too.

“This is a place for him, as he gets older, to call his own, where he’ll have his own doctors and where he can have a sense of independence,” she said. “They can give him tools that I can’t.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com