Rising Star: A.J. Schwichtenberg, assistant professor of human development and family studies, arrived at Purdue in January with a $930,000 grant to study the development of autism in young children. (Photo by Mark Simons)
Embedded in the new HHS strategic plan and explicit in its vision is the quest to recruit, develop and retain top faculty as well as independent researchers and collaborative groups who conduct internationally recognized basic and applied research.
Enter A.J. Schwichtenberg, assistant professor of human development and family studies, as one example.
Schwichtenberg arrived at Purdue in January from University of California, Davis, with a $930,000 grant that she received in 2011 from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the development of autism in young children.
Schwichtenberg's cutting-edge research as the principal investigator for Purdue's Early Autism Identification Study monitors the progress of babies from 6 to 30 months of age who have an older sibling already diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It also comes at a time when the rate of autism has steadily grown over the last 20 years and is now considered the fastest-growing developmental disorder, according to the National Autism Association.
"We are interested in learning more about early social, language, cognitive, emotional regulation, and physiological development to identify and understand autism at earlier ages," she says. "Previous infant sibling studies tell us that approximately 25 percent of the younger siblings of children with autism will develop autism themselves."
In addition to looking at the early risk factors for children — in hopes of lowering the age of diagnosis for autism — outcomes also may provide participating families with detailed developmental information on the growing infant sibling.
"At its core autism is a social disorder, but it is not synonymous with 'disability,' she insists. "Autism can vary in severity in the way people communicate and interact with others. There is a saying: 'If you know one individual with autism, you know one individual with autism,' because everyone is so different." Early intervention is key in effective treatment and progress.
Coming to Purdue was an ideal fit for her teaching, research and career goals, as well as her family, Schwichtenberg says.
Another reason was the emerging Purdue Autism Network (PAN). The interdisciplinary group of clinical and research faculty across the University also includes local public education and other professionals who are dedicated to developing a center for ASD research. PAN began in May 2008 in response to increased funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a recent 10-year agenda for more ASD research and treatment network centers.
"PAN was one of the reasons I was drawn to Purdue — it was certainly part of the selling points," says Schwichtenberg. "We want to focus on what we can do to make a difference. People here have been so truly amazing and supportive of the need for ASD research, and it takes people who are passionate about what we do to move things forward."
Purdue's Early Autism Identification Study also expands research opportunities for undergraduate students, another goal of the new HHS strategic plan. Those interested in participating are encouraged to contact AJ Schwichtenberg at 765-494-6610 or AJLab@purdue.edu.