The Autism Research Project: Different studies, one goal

By By Celeste Chaney

By Celeste Chaney

Twenty years ago, the U collaborated with the University of California, Los Angeles, on a study about children with high-functioning autism, which refers to people who have been diagnosed with autism but have an average IQ.

Today, the Autism Research Project at the U is looking at the status of those children who are now adults.

Megan Farley, a seventh-year educational psychology graduate student, is one of several graduate students working on this specific study and will write her dissertation on the topic.

Farley said it was surprising how well most are doing. Many of the estimated 480 participants are married and have careers and families.

“It’s been the greatest experience for me,” said Farley, who is working on the study with Bill McMahon, a professor in the psychiatry department. “It’s so exciting to always be learning more…meeting the people (in the study) and talking with them. There is no end to what I get to learn.”

About 10 graduate students are working toward their master’s or doctoral degrees through the Autism Research Project, but not on the same study as Farley. Michele Villalobos is a third-year graduate student working toward her master’s and doctoral degree in clinical psychology. She is working with her mentor, clinical psychologist Judith Miller, in an early intervention program for children under 2 years of age who are developing signs of autism.

Villalobos said signs of autism include general social impairment, a limited range in interest, the way a child interacts or communicates or a problem in language development. She said the symptoms and treatment of autism vary greatly.

“There is a saying that goes, ‘If you’ve seen one child with autism, then you’ve seen one child with autism,'” Villalobos said.

The study Miller and Villalobos are working on is different from the study completed 20 years ago and the participants Farley is now studying.

“The diagnostic criteria between now and 20 years ago has changed,” Miller said. Back then, those diagnosed with autism had severe symptoms and some suffered from mental retardation. Now, the diagnostic criteria is broader, she said.

“Only 25 percent of people with autism are mentally retarded, while 75 percent are high-functioning,” Miller said.

Farley and Miller said that because the criteria in diagnosis were not present 20 years ago, it appears that autism is increasing, when the reality is that many people with autism were simply not identified.

The screening process Miller and Villalobos are using on toddlers 18 to 36 months old will help identify autism at an earlier age and help them provide earlier intervention.

“We still don’t know the cause of autism, and we don’t know the cure,” Miller said. “But children who get intervention before age 5 usually have a much fuller life than those who do not.”

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