Go to Google and do a quick online news search for “autism” and you’ll find dozens of articles on all sorts of topics like “New System to Help Children with Autism Learn Better In a Classroom Setting” from Autism Parenting magazine and “Barber goes above the call of duty to ensure child with autism gets amazing haircut,” from ABC News. Faculty with the Purdue Autism Cluster are researching ways to best assess, understand and then help those with ASD.
Putting the Puzzle Together
“Autism Spectrum Disorder is complex,” says Mandy Rispoli, associate professor of special education and co-director of Purdue Autism Cluster. “It’s no wonder that the puzzle piece has become a popular logo for autism groups. In many ways, autism research is attempting to help put the pieces of the puzzle together to determine how autism develops, how it is assessed, how people with autism and their families can be best supported, and what interventions are linked to positive life outcomes for this population,” Rispoli says. “The nature of these issues is wide reaching and requires researchers with varied backgrounds and areas of expertise.”
The Purdue Autism Cluster team includes ten associated faculty members from across disciplines—two from the College of Education— and others from the Colleges of Health and Human Sciences, Science and Veterinary Medicine. They are also affiliated with the Purdue University Institute for Integrative Neuroscience.
Rose Mason, assistant professor of special education and the most recent addition to the team, says, “My current research is focusing on incorporating technology to increase access to interventions in a variety of settings (e.g. college, community and job) for adolescents and adults with autism to support improved postschool outcomes. We know a lot about what works with younger populations with autism, such as preschool and elementary, and the goal is to learn how we can apply some of those interventions with older populations.”
Thanks to financial support from the Gadomski Foundation and the Anderson Foundation, the Purdue Autism Cluster has funded pilot collaborative autism research grants. Nine interdisciplinary projects investigating topics such as sleep and daytime behaviors, early markers for autism, and the development of a summer camp that integrated autism research with intervention were made possible.
In addition to research, the Cluster also engages in collaborative activities and projects, such as organizing an annual speaker series and designing new courses geared to attract and mentor undergraduate and graduate students interested in autism-related careers.
The strength in the Autism Cluster is in the interdisciplinary connections.
“Measurement of specific behavior skills, such as commenting, engagement or conversational reciprocity can be very challenging,” says Mason. “However, there are members of the cluster that do biophysical measurement. So, instead of just looking at changes in observable behaviors, collaboration can provide opportunity to look at changes in heart rate, for example, as a measure of anxiety levels during social situations.”
Rispoli agrees. “The Autism Cluster brings together faculty from several disciplines and colleges across Purdue University so that we can build upon one another’s skill sets to look at autism in new ways and to push the field further through interdisciplinary collaborations.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children has been identified with ASD. Ultimately, those children are who the faculty are aiming to help. “For me, it always comes back to improving the lives of young children with disabilities,” says Rispoli.
“Knowing that the research I am doing influences how my students approach their careers, leads to changes in teacher practices, and results in improved outcomes for children with autism is the greatest reward.”
Source: Purdue University, College of Education, LAUNCH, Fall 2017 https://www.education.purdue.edu/college-magazine/