University of Vermont

College of Nursing and Health Sciences

UVM Autism Institute June 23-27 Examines Research, Treatment

Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1 in 88 American children are on the autism spectrum, which is a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. The increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness.

In June, the University of Vermont will host the 17th annual Summer Institute on Autism Spectrum Disorders, June 23-27, at the Doubletree by Hilton in South Burlington. The institute will include presentations on aspects of assessment, treatment and research of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) by five key speakers. The event is hosted by the UVM College of Nursing and Health Sciences Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

“The Autism Institute is an incredible opportunity for networking among families and providers,” says Patricia Prelock, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UVM.  “It also provides participants with the most up-to-date research and cutting edge interventions that they can go out and try with the children and families they support.”

Research highlights will include 34 years of outcome data provided by Dr. Phil Strain regarding his approach to social cognition — improving peer connections for children with ASD. The institute will also include some of the new work by Jennifer Staple-Wax and her colleagues related to early identification of ASD, Prelock says.

Another featured speaker will be New York Times best-selling author John Elder Robison, who will describe growing up with Asperger’s at a time when differences like his were unrecognized. After finding success as an adult he began helping others see strengths where most see disability and went on to write Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. John’s wife Maripat will join him at the event to talk about family and romantic issues they’ve faced as a couple.

In a recent interview, Prelock said there have been a number of advances in autism research over the past year. One of the most notable is the newly defined criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that was released by the American Psychiatric Association in May 2013. The DSM is the standard reference that health care providers use to diagnose mental and behavioral conditions, and the new version is referred to as the DSM-5.

According to Prelock, there have been some questions raised by parents and caregivers over the new version. “One misconception may be that because of the new diagnostic criteria through the DSM-5 individuals believe a child previously diagnosed with Asperger disorder will not receive a diagnosis and receive services,” she says. “This is inaccurate as the intent of the DSM-5 is not to deny a diagnosis, but to be more thoughtful and accurate in our assessments and determine what level of support will be needed to ensure an individual’s success.”

Other recent autism research recently in the news reveals that infants who go on to develop autism not only look at faces less than other babies do but also look away from important facial features when a person speaks. The findings, by researchers at Yale University School of Medicine, add to those of a recent eye-tracking study that likewise associated autism with subtle differences in attention to faces among six-month-old babies.

Discussing research is just part of the UVM Autism Institute. The event is also about strategies for services, early screening and real stories from people living with autism. The event draws up to 250 people per day from Vermont and New England, with a core group of individuals who participate in the week-long seminar.

Participants include speech-language pathologists, special educators, general educators, medical professionals, family members, administrators, early interventionists, paraprofessionals, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, child care service providers, social workers, behavior analysts and community resource parents.

The Autism Summer Institute’s featured presentations will include:

  • Outcomes research on preschool programming emphasizing the role of peers and inclusive educational practices for children with ASD
  • Theory of Mind (ToM) and its relationship to social communication challenges
  • Strategies to provide quality services for children with ASD using limited resources
  • Practices in early screening and detection using emerging technologies
  • What it's like to live with autism

For more information or to register, visit the College of Nursing and Health Sciences website. For more information about autism, visit autismspeaks.org.