A boost for children with autism

An American foundation has made a $180,000 donation to the York University Foundation in support of a new study on two treatments for autism that will be conducted by researchers at the University’s Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI).

The Unicorn Children’s Foundation (UCF), based in Boca Raton, Florida, is supporting a study that will examine two different clinical approaches to autism: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the best-studied and most popular form of treatment for autism, and the Developmental Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based Model (DIR), developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan (right), clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, and Professor Stuart Shanker (left), distinguished research professor of psychology and philosophy in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, at York University.

The DIR model maintains that a deficit in social and emotional functioning is a root cause of the difficulties facing children with autistic spectrum disorders. The model maintains that treatment interventions should focus on treating these deficits directly by increasing children’s motivation to engage in social interactions. Since ABA is only effective about half the time, MEHRI researchers hope through the UCF-funded study to expand the range of options available in the treatment of autistic children through the use of DIR.

"The Unicorn Children’s Foundation is dedicated to supporting education, awareness and research programs on behalf of all children with neurodevelopment disorders, such as autism, but also includes attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and other related disorders," says Sharon Alexander, UCF director of programs. "We’re very excited by the potential of this very important research taking place at York University and the impact it could have toward the treatment of children with autism to help them reach their fullest potential."

Above: Stuart Shanker, distinguished research professor of psychology and philosophy at York University, interacts with children at the Mothercraft day-care facility in Toronto at the launch of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative in 2005

"This is one of the most exciting times to be in this field of work," said Shanker, who is the director of MEHRI. "Some of the biggest breakthroughs in our understanding and knowledge of the developing brain have occurred in just the past six or seven years."

Shanker and Greenspan contend that interactions with caregivers in the early years of life result in a series of transformations that are necessary for the healthy development of language, intelligence, social skills and reflective consciousness. DIR targets these transformations to set children with autism onto a healthy developmental path.

"We are grateful to The Unicorn Children’s Foundation for its generous investment," said Harvey Skinner, dean of York’s Faculty of Health. "This is obviously landmark work that has far-reaching application – not only for children with developmental disorders but for the healthy development of all children and our knowledge of human development."

"With its generosity, the Unicorn Children’s Foundation is building on the original and dynamic vision of Milton and Ethel Harris and on York’s strengths in health research," said York University Foundation President Paul Marcus.

For more on MEHRI, see the June 23, 2005 issue of YFile.

This article was submitted to YFile by Bruce Mitchell, marketing & communications specialist, York University Foundation.