October 14, 2011

It takes all kinds of minds: Dr. Temple Grandin sheds light on autism at USU

Dr. Temple Grandin
Dr. Temple Grandin will soon visit Utah State University. She’s coming to discuss animal handling, a field she’s revolutionized. She’ll also talk about Autism Spectrum Disorder.

She’s on the autism spectrum herself, and her life experience gives her a refreshing, insider’s approach to the topic. On November 2 she’ll deliver a free public lecture: “All Kinds of Minds Need to Work Together.” She speaks at 4 p.m. in the Taggart Student Center ballroom.

If anywhere needs more frank discussion about autism, it’s Utah. Nationwide, one in 110 children is diagnosed with ASD. In Utah, the rate is one in 77. That means that two of every 150 babies born in the state will experience the significant challenges in communication, behavior and getting along with others that come with ASD. The cost of treating autism can total $3.5 million over a child’s lifetime, according to a 2006 Harvard study—including medical care, prescriptions and intervention.

Autism isn’t just a hot topic because of the numbers. It’s also hotly debated, as advocates, parents, doctors and researchers seek consensus on its causes and treatment.

That said, some bright spots in the autism puzzle shine right here on the USU campus. All kinds of minds are working together at the Center for Persons with Disabilities to identify ASD and help people on the spectrum to be included in their communities. Programs ensure that professionals and future leaders who will be working with children and adults on the ASD spectrum will be trained in intervention techniques that work.

“We work very hard with the children to prepare them for success in inclusive settings,” said Dr. Thomas Higbee, who directs the Autism Support Services: Education, Research and Training (ASSERT) preschool program. “Just throwing them into inclusive settings when they have not developed the skills to be successful is often counterproductive. It is critically important to help them learn effective social skills. Once a student has learned them, it is a great opportunity for them to have positive experiences that will hopefully motivate them to continue participating in social situations.”

The ASSERT classroom provides instruction to preschool-age children, plus some real-world experience to students and graduate students in the field. Many children have graduated from the ASSERT program and gone on to mainstream classrooms.

The CPD also offers early intervention services offered through the Up to 3 program. Screening services are also provided for people of all ages, using an interdisciplinary approach.

Dr. Grandin has repeatedly said the sensory issues that often accompany ASD should receive more attention. People on the spectrum may be hypersensitive to sounds, textures or smells—and those sensitivities can further complicate social interactions and even make many foods undesirable, affecting the child’s nutrition.

CPD clinics and programs address a child’s sensory difficulties, particularly when it comes to food and nutrition. And over the past 3 years, 26 graduate students or practicing professionals in health care have received autism-specific training so that they can better address the needs of people with ASD in their own communities. They received that training through the Utah Regional Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities program, co-administered by USU and the University of Utah.
CPD researchers are also working to understand the causes of autism. It is a harder task than they anticipated. Although genetic research in autism is a very active field–and many research groups claim they have autism-gene associations–only a small percentage of autism cases can firmly be associated with genes, said the CPD’s biomedical laboratory director, Dr. Anthony Torres.

"Dax" from the 1 in 110 photo exhibit, that will be
in conjunction with Dr. Grandin’s book signing.
Photographer: Christopher Gauthier. 
“It is my belief that autism is not caused by one defect,” he said. “If we knew different genetic defects for certain groups of patients, we could customize the treatment.” Dr. Torres and Clinical Services Co-Director Dennis Odell have discovered an association between autism and a gene linked to autoimmune problems.

Whatever the causes are for ASD, advocates have long speculated that some of the world’s geniuses, including Albert Einstein, were on the spectrum. In her book The Way I See It, Dr. Grandin had this to say: “There’s just no black and white dividing line between a computer techie and say, an Asperger’s person. So if we get rid of the genetics that cause autism, there might be a horrible price to pay. Years ago, a scientist in Massachusetts said if you got rid of all the genes that caused disorders, you’d have only dried-up bureaucrats left!”

Instead, as her lecture implies, she argues that all kinds of minds should work together.

For more information on Dr. Grandin’s upcoming visit to the USU campus, take a look at her visit page. The event is part of the Center for Persons with Disabilities’ 40th Anniversary Celebration. (The CPD and USU’s College of Agriculture are two of several sponsors of her visit.)

For more about on the CPD’s programs for ASD, contact JoLynne Lyon.

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