Two grad students sweep Autism Scholars Awards

Michelle Viecili and Azin Taheri

The winners of this year’s Autism Scholars Awards, given annually to a student at a master’s and doctoral level, both hail from York University.

Doctoral student Michelle Viecili and master’s degree student Azin Taheri will receive $20,000 and $18,000 respectively through Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to conduct research on autism, announced the Council of Ontario Universities Tuesday.

Michelle Viecili
Michelle Viecili

“We are extremely proud that both of this year’s Autism Scholars Award winners come from York University,” says President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. Michelle’s and Azin’s research exemplifies the excellent quality of the training, scholarship and collaboration taking place in York’s Clinical Developmental Psychology program, and their groundbreaking work will help to lead to a better understanding of autism and developmental disabilities in children.”

Viecili and Taheri are both part of York’s Clinical Developmental Psychology Program. The award will help to support the creation of new knowledge concerning child autism and the translation of that knowledge into improved health for children. That could translate into more effective services and products for children with autism, an increase in the province’s capacity to diagnose and assess autism, and a strengthened treatment system.

Michelle Viecili

Viecili’s research spans three degrees at York focusing on a range of areas related to the mental health of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Her current research focuses on the interpersonal experiences of adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), specifically in the areas of sexuality and interpersonal violence. Her research explores a broad range of interpersonal violence adults with ASD may be experiencing and factors that may lead to an increased risk of victimization.

“This piece of research will provide important information to parents, clinicians, teachers, other professionals and individuals with ASD about the factors that may be leading to increased risk for interpersonal violence,” she says. “Knowing factors that lead to increased risk may assist in the development of preventative programming.”

Viecili notes that York’s psychology graduate program is one of the largest in Canada and, in turn, “there is a vast amount of training, scholarship and research opportunities, as well as the ability to work and collaborate with leading researchers in their respective fields.”

Azin Taheri
Azin Taheri

She is currently recruiting adult participants with ASD for her study. For more information, visit Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health Lab website.

Azin Taheri

Taheri’s research focuses on children with autism and developmental disabilities (DD). In the past, she has examined the new DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism, and is currently involved with a project evaluating the quality of intervention for children with autism – The York Measure of Quality of Intensive Behavioural Intervention (YMQI).

“Using this measure, we plan to explore various factors that may impact the delivery of high quality of intervention,” says Taheri. For her master’s thesis, she plans to examine the social participation of children with severe DD in comparison to their typically developing peers, in addition to the factors that impact social participation for this population.

“I hope that my research will inform policy makers and professionals on efficient use of public resources and the delivery of high quality of services for children with autism and DD,” she says. “The contributions I hope to make as a student, researcher and clinician are part of a larger ambition to provide better outcomes for children with disabilities.”

Taheri notes she chose the Clinical Developmental Psychology Program at York because “it is one of the largest and most unique programs of its kind in Canada.” The emphasis on research while undertaking clinical training and practice has enabled her to gain diverse and valuable experience in her field.

For more information, visit the Graduate Program in Psychology website.