Supporting autism awareness across the spectrum

UAlberta researchers work together in the search for answers to help children and families cope with autism.

Pediatrics professor Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, co-director of UAlberta's Autism Research Centre, discusses how his research is contributing to earlier diagnosis and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorder. (Video: AIHS)

(Edmonton) In advance of World Autism Day April 2, Mike Lake, member of Parliament for Edmonton-Millwoods-Beaumont, will visit the University of Alberta campus to help raise awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Alberta. As a parent of an autistic child, Lake uses his own experience with his son Jaden to change the way we think about people on the margins. He has addressed global leaders at the World Health Organization and in the international research community. And as a proud Edmontonian, personally vested in the cause, he understands the urgent need to continue the search for answers and provide help to people living with ASD.

ASD affects one in 68 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism is more common in children than diabetes, pediatric cancer and AIDS combined. It is a complex condition that can impair a child's ability to understand social situations, to use language effectively and to control their own behaviour. With a myriad of symptoms and effects running the gamut from psychological and physical to emotional, and a spectrum of mild to severe within each of those, there isn't one approach or field that will be able to solve this dilemma. But the U of A is home to experts in diverse fields working together to find ways to help children and families adapt and grow through this complicated disorder.

Seeking earlier interventions for better outcomes

"Children with autism often exhibit challenging and disruptive behaviours," says Sandra Hodgetts, assistant professor in occupational therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. "These behaviours place high demands on their parents and families." In a recent study entitled "Profile and predictors of service needs for families of children with autism spectrum disorders," Hodgetts, along with her colleagues Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, professor in pediatrics, and David Nicholas, professor of social work, found that parents of children with autism are turning to professionals for assistance with their child's disruptive behaviours. They also found that increasing demand for autism services is straining Alberta's public health system. By using their knowledge to tailor services to best meet families' needs, the researchers suggest that we can improve their quality of life while decreasing the burden on the system.

According to CDC, autism spectrum disorder is nearly five times more common in boys than in girls.

Zwaigenbaum is co-director of the U of A's Autism Research Centre and holds the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation Chair in Autism Research. "It worries me as a pediatrician when I see children come into the clinic, undiagnosed at four and five years old," says Zwaigenbaum. "My research focuses on early development in autism. With the goals of identifying early behavioural and neurobiological markers of autism, my research group is following a high-risk cohort-namely, infant siblings. This is helping us identify specific risk markers to aid in earlier diagnosis and study basic processes (for example, attention control and emotion regulation) that may underlie later symptoms.

"We are hopeful that this research will help identify children with autism earlier, which will then allow for earlier interventions and better outcomes."

Not all children diagnosed with autism face the same challenges. Some have unusual sensory responses, such as sensitivity to loud noises; others have unusual behavioural mannerisms, such as being preoccupied with a certain toy or movie. The severity depends on how much their symptoms interfere with their ability to participate in everyday life.

Understanding how kids with autism move-and think

Participation in sport can be intimidating for any child, and for autistic children who often lack basic motor skills, it may seem impossible. But new research by U of A educational psychology professor Veronica Smith provides good news to parents and children who want to maintain an active lifestyle through sports and physical activity. Getting Into the Game: Sports Programs for Kids With Autism, a new book by Smith and co-author Stephanie Patterson, provides programming recommendations and practical tips for families, clinicians and coaches.

Researchers at the U of A are studying not only how children with autism move, but also how they think. PhD graduate Carley Piatt is working with professors Joanne Volden (communication sciences and disorders) and Jeff Bisanz (psychology) to study cognitive development and, more specifically, the development of mathematical thinking in children with ASD. They are exploring how high-functioning children and youth with ASD solve a variety of mathematical tasks. By focusing on how these children think about math, the researchers hope to gain a better understanding of subtle and important differences in problem solving among children with ASD.

Piatt's expertise is now being put to work in her new role as strategic research officer at Technology North, a local company that creates software and database applications to support interventions for children with ASD. The company is driven by the deeply personal vision of CEO Ling Huang, whose son has ASD. That personal connection and commitment are fundamental drivers in finding innovative, technology-based ways to improve the lives of individuals with ASD.

The communications challenges of people with ASD are at the heart of Volden's work. A key autism researcher at the U of A, her work is focused on communication skills of people with ASD. Volden, is co-director of the Autism Research Centre and, along with Zwaigenbaum, has partnered with colleagues across Canada to study developmental trajectories of children with ASD from first diagnosis. So far, participating children have been followed to age 10, and the work will continue.

"Stories are at the heart of things-in learning, research and practice-and so Mr. Lake is bringing a valuable perspective to our class by sharing with us his stories about being a parent to a child who experiences autism and an advocate for autism research," says Kelly Arbeau, sessional instructor in psychology.

Along with classroom presentations, Lake will also present a session at the second annual Discovering Autism interdisciplinary conference March 21 at the U of A. The conference is hosted by the Student Association of the Centre for Autism Services Alberta.

Learn more or register for the conference.