Some 24 outside agencies came to the inaugural York Autism Research Alliance’s Research Showcase at York last week to hear what researchers were working on – everything from isolating three to 20 genes potentially responsible for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to looking at how children with ASD process visual and auditory information.
“The take home message is that autism research here at York University isn’t just one thing,” psychology Professor Jonathan Weiss, chair of the York Autism Research Alliance (YARA) in the Faculty of Health, told the audience. “We want you to have a picture as you walk away from today of the breadth at which different faculty members with different areas of expertise are doing research.”
Left: Dorota Crawford (standing, left) and Jonathan Weiss answering questions from the audience
YARA is an interdisciplinary team of researchers at York that has been in existence for about two years. This was the first time it has reached out to a large range of community service providers as a group. The event was sponsored by Multi-Health Systems.
“The goal was to provide an overview of the incredible range of autism research at York and reach out to service providers and start a conversation with them,” said Weiss. “It’s really about knowledge exchange. This was the first step in that exchange, and they can let us know what they are interested in. Rather than a one way street, it breaks down the academic silos.”
Weiss has just finished two pilot projects using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with people with ASD – one used CBT to help reduce anxiety and the other used it to help build anger management skills. Weiss wants to know if the interventions that already exist can be adapted to help children with ASD, who also suffer from things like anxiety and aggression.
Right: Kari Hoffman explains her research at the inaugural showcase of the York Autism Research Alliance
But that’s not all; he is also interested in knowing whether the level of health care and access to service for families with a teenager or adult with ASD is lacking in various parts of the province, what health care services they need and their experience of the system, and has embarked on a study to find out.
Dorota Crawford, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, told the gathering she is researching whether genes or the environment are responsible for ASD. One of the things she is doing is trying to identify the genes responsible for specific symptoms of ASD and determine how they affect brain function. She has so far recruited 20 families with a child with ASD to give genetic material samples through a mouth swab to be able to compare genes. She is hoping her research will lead to an earlier diagnosis (before the age of two), earlier intervention and development of specific pharmaceuticals.
“The incidence of autism in the last three decades has increased dramatically,” she said. In 1977, only one in 2,500 people were diagnosed with ASD, while in 2009 one in 106 people were diagnosed. Of those being diagnosed, males are four times as likely as females to have ASD.
Left: From left, Jonathan Weiss, Adrienne Perry, James Bebko, Dorota Crawford, Jennifer Steeves, Maz Fallah, Louise Hartley, director of the York University Psychology Clinic, and Tania Xerri, director of the Health Leadership & Learning Network
Psychology Professor Kari Hoffman told the audience about her work with social and emotional processing, the destination points for processing and the routes taken, which may be different in people with ASD than in a typical person.
School of Kinesiology & Health Science Professor Maz Fallah is interested in what things people with ASD pay attention to that may differ from others, what is the reason for that and what interventions could help. People who have an ASD have a persistent preoccupation with parts. “They cannot see the forest for the trees,” says Fallah, and that might have to do with an object-based attention deficit, for instance.
As psychology Professor Jennifer Steeves says, “There’s a lot we take for granted when we look around the room, but there’s a lot of computations that are taking place in the brain.”
This plays into what psychology Professor James Bebko is researching. Children with ASD don’t seem to be able to combine visual and auditory cues into a single unit, which is needed to assess emotion when watching and listening to someone talking. Their sensory systems seem largely intact, he said, so it may be that the problem lies in the processing or the transitional skills needed before the processing occurs.
What psychology Professor Adrienne Perry is looking into is the effectiveness of Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI), the program of choice for treating children with ASD. But Perry says the results in the field are variable compared to those in a controlled situation and she wants to know why. She is looking at the predictors of how well IBI works, such as age, IQ and severity of autism, as well as parent involvement.
“It’s great to see that research is going to look at family stress and at the IBI. We really struggle in the community to know what to do,” said Penny Diamantopoulos, a case manager with the child and family team of the Central Community Care Access Centre (Central CCAC).
Dawn Ullman, also a case manager at Central CCAC, says she hopes the alliance does some follow up with the community in the next year or so. She would like to know what the results are of some of the research the professors highlighted. “I really want to know the bottom line” as the person working with the families.
For more information, visit the York Autism Research Alliance website.