Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that presents both challenges and opportunities.
Brock University researchers are investigating many aspects of ASD, providing strong leadership and insights in the field as they do so.
April is World Autism Awareness Month and several Brock University researchers are sharing their expertise:
Julie Koudys and Kendra Thomson, Associate Professors in the Department of Applied Disability Studies, are experts in applied behaviour analysis (ABA), which uses scientific principles to better understand how behaviour and learning occur.
The theory is applied to real-life situations to increase language and communication skills, decrease behaviours that may be challenging, and improve social skills, attention, focus and academic performance.
Koudys, a behaviour analyst and clinical psychologist, focuses on teaching parents skills they can apply to a variety of situations and activities their children encounter, including addressing communication, behavioural and sleep challenges.
“There are many day-to-day activities that are much more challenging for children and youth diagnosed with ASD and their family members, things many people take for granted,” says Koudys. “Research is important, but we also need to look closely at how our communities and service systems are structured and make changes to better support the daily success of autistic individuals and their families.”
Thomson conducts community-based research that focuses broadly on translating evidence-based behavioural strategies to empower care providers, professionals and people with developmental disabilities and their families to increase independence and improve quality of life.
“ABA is meant to be empowering, so our applied research attempts to understand how to best build capacity of those who support individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities,” she says. “If people providing support feel empowered and confident that can have positive impacts for autistic individuals.”
Thomson notes that people who have been diagnosed with ASD experience autism in many different ways.
“Some identify with the diagnosis, and some do not. Some autistic people have communication challenges, so it is important that we don’t make assumptions about how they feel about certain things,” she says.
Thomson points out that some autistic people may find awareness events such as Autism Awareness Month “triggering.”
Alison Cox, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Disability Studies, is also an ABA practitioner. She’s an expert in assessing and treating severe challenging behaviour in individuals with dual diagnosis — individuals with an intellectual developmental disability who also experience a mental health condition — and supervising early intensive behavioural intervention programs.
“I encourage clinicians, caregivers and stakeholders to look for opportunities to get involved in research,” says Cox. “The benefits for themselves, their loved ones and the disability community are expansive. Participating in applied research expedites generating research outcomes, which can directly impact service quality.”
Laura Mullins, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Disability Studies, examines topics related to addressing individual, organizational and systemic factors that impact the quality of life of persons with disabilities. These are in many areas, including post-secondary education, housing and direct and clinical support services.
“When conducting research about people on the spectrum and other disabilities it is critical to conduct the research with them to the greatest extent possible,” says Mullins. “I use a variety of methods and accommodations to ensure we are hearing the lived experiences directly from those that are affected.”
Maureen Connolly, Professor of Kinesiology, is founder and Director of the Supporting Neurodiversity through Adaptive Programming (SNAP). Running since the mid-1990s, the weekly program integrates movement and education concepts into physical activities for children and youth ages five and up experiencing disability in the Niagara region. SNAP also offers a suite of teen and adult programs.
“It is our responsibility to pay attention to the bodies and expressive modalities of our neurodiverse participants and to learn from them how to make activity programming relevant and meaningful as well as fun,” she says.