Ontario’s lieutenant governor visits York’s Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative

The Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI) at York University is creating a compelling body of work that explores the critical role of the caregiving environment in the evolution and development of language, intelligence, social skills and reflective consciousness in children.

During a recent conversation with York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, David Onley (Hon. LLD ’09), expressed an interest in the research initiative. In response, Shoukri invited Onley to tour the facility and speak with researchers. On July 15, the lieutenant governor paid an informal visit to the University to hear first-hand from MEHRI researchers and therapists about their research into early childhood development.

Above: From left, MEHRI neuroscientist Jim Stieben; President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri; York Distinguished Research Professor Stuart Shanker, director of MEHRI; Rhonda Lenton, associate vice-president academic; Devin Casenhiser, MEHRI head of research; David Onley, the lieutenant governor of Ontario; MEHRI therapist Christine Robinson; Professor Lesley Beagrie, associate dean of professional & global programs in the Faculty of Health; Amanda Binns, MEHRI speech language pathologist; Alicia Allison, MEHRI community liason officer; Fay McGill, MEHRI speech language pathologist and floor-time therapist; Ana Bojcun, MEHRI budget & administrative officer; and Eunice Lee, MEHRI social worker

During his visit, Onley listened to remarks from the University’s president and Stuart Shanker, York Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology & Philosophy and the director of MEHRI. He then heard from MEHRI therapists and researchers about their work before taking a tour of the research facility.

Also present at the event were Rhonda Lenton, associate vice-president academic, and Professor Leslie Beagrie, associate dean of professional & global programs in the Faculty of Health.

“I believe that York performs a very important and critical function in supporting postsecondary education, not only through the training of students but also through research," said Shoukri in his opening remarks.

"This particular initiative is very close to my heart. The Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative is led by its director, York Distinguished Research Professor Stuart Shanker. One of the exciting aspects of this initiative is its focus on child development," Shoukri said. "From all that I have seen so far, there is clear evidence that this initiative is on its way to having a significant national and international impact."

Following the president’s comments, Shanker offered a brief history of MEHRI, including the role of the late Canadian philanthropist Milton Harris, whose support made the research initiative possible, (see YFile, June 23, 2005).

Right: Stuart Shanker

"We were very interested in a program called the Developmental Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based Model (DIR) for very specific reasons," said Shanker. "It focuses on the child’s core capacities. So that rather than trying to treat a symptom, you are trying to develop those underlying capacities that are constricted."

Conceived by the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan (Hon. LLD ’06), a clinical professor of psychiatry, behavioural science and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and a practising child psychiatrist, DIR is a social interaction-based approach for treating children with autistic spectrum disorders. DIR engages children through play to expand their world and help develop their ideas and relationships and is at the heart of the extended study now underway at MEHRI. Shanker said the research will have an impact on the treatment of all children experiencing challenges and will play a role in enhancing the capacities of children developing typically.

"Suppose I had a child who was experiencing difficulty in learning how to read. Rather than doing intensive exercises to get the child to read, we would look at what are the underlying causes. Is there a problem with visual perception or motor control?" he said. "In addition to doing reading exercises, with DIR we would work very hard on strengthening the weakened capacities that are causing the deficits and rather than just treating the symptoms."

DIR is wedded to science, said Shanker, and at MEHRI, scientists and therapists are partners in the research underway into children’s core capacities. "I saw this as a model for the 21st century, a framework for really enhancing early childhood development, because we would continually be revising and developing what we are doing," said Shanker.

"DIR also operates through the parent. The parent becomes the primary agent in the child’s development. What we have been seeing is that there has been a remarkable effect on family dyanmics. Families are being empowered by DIR," he said. "This is a program about understanding, for any child, why they may be having certain problems and what are the causes and then helping that child to develop a better ability to stay calm and focused.

"Milt Harris was very insistent that he wanted this initiative to inform public policy, so MEHRI has also been working very hard with the premier’s special adviser on early learning [Dr. Charles Pascal]," said Shanker. "MEHRI has played a role in seeing these ideas embedded in the core of the early learning program that is being rolled out in Ontario."

Lenton echoed Shanker’s comments and reiterated that she was very pleased to see that the work underway at MEHRI, in addition to helping children with autism, would have benefits related to a general approach to early childhood development.

Onley then heard from MEHRI therapists Christine Robinson, Amanda Binns, Sonia Khan and Eunice Lee. The group spoke about their work with children with autism and showed before-and-after video clips that displayed the accomplishments experienced by a child after just a few weeks in floor-time therapy. 

MEHRI researchers Devin Casenhiser and Jim Stieben offered a summary of their latest research to Onley. Their work examines the behavioural and neurological effects of a DIR-based treatment on young children with autism spectrum disorders. The two researchers previewed the results of their research to the lieutenant governor. The MEHRI researchers explained how they hope the results of their work will expand the range of options available in the treatment of all children through the use of DIR. 

"This is remarkable," said Onley. "Thank you all very much, your research is most fascinating. The reality of autism is significant. I hear regularly from parents who express their deep concerns about autism. Please keep up the good work and I look forward to keeping in touch and following your research."

At the conclusion of the presentations, the lieutenant governor and Shoukri toured the MEHRI facility.

More about David Onley, the lieutenant governor of Ontario

In 2007, Onley was the first person with a physical disability – he had polio at the age of three – to become a lieutenant governor. Before stepping into the role, he had a 22-year career as a broadcaster for Citytv and was the first senior newscaster with a visible disability.

For many years, he has championed disability issues as chair of the Government of Ontario’s Accessibility Standards Advisory Council and as an accessibility council member for the Rogers Centre and the Air Canada Centre. Onley has used his influence to highlight and help remove barriers to employment and housing for Ontario’s 1.5 million people with disabilities.

On Friday, June 26, 2009, York honoured Onley with an honorary degree in recognition of his work in advancing disability rights in Canada.