This is a guest post by Peter Bell, the executive vice president for programs and services at Autism Speaks. He oversees the foundation’s government relations and family services activities and also serves as an advisor to the science division.
The International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. To commemorate this special occasion, the organizers returned to San Diego the site of the inaugural meeting in 2001. Although the city pretty much looks the same (one notable exception is the new Petco Park baseball stadium downtown), the landscape of IMFAR has undergone radical changes. While IMFAR is first and foremost a scientific meeting, the meeting has developed into a healthy blend of science and stakeholder perspectives.
The most notable difference between IMFAR 2001 and IMFAR 2011 is attendance. This year’s meeting attracted almost 2000 participants compared to just 250 when IMFAR began. The original meeting was a satellite to the very large Society for Neuroscience conference. Now IMFAR spawns its own satellite meetings. More than 1,100 research abstracts were presented this year over the course of three days. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 200 abstracts and the meeting lasted just a day and a half. Without question, the quality of research has undergone major transformation during the past decade.
The idea to create IMFAR was first conceived and supported by the stakeholder community. In fact, the first several years of IMFAR were organized by CAN and NAAR, which later merged with Autism Speaks, with strong support and guidance from the MIND Institute at UC Davis. Eventually, the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) was formed to give autism scientists and students a membership organization to host the meeting and further develop the field. INSAR is now responsible for producing IMFAR each year while Autism Speaks and several other advocacy organizations continue to play a critical role and provide financial support in the form of sponsorships.
Two years ago, INSAR President David Amaral formed a Community Advisory Committee to ensure the stakeholder community is well represented and positively contributes to the success of the Society and its annual meeting. The Committee is chaired by Peter Bell from Autism Speaks (also a parent advocate) and co-chaired by self-advocate John Elder Robison, author of “Look Me in the Eye” and “Be Different”. Total membership includes six parent advocates, two self-advocates and one graduate student.
This year’s IMFAR meeting included many activities geared toward the stakeholder community. For the second consecutive year, one of the local academic institutions (University of California, San Diego) hosted an IMFAR Community Conference the day before IMFAR started. Over 300 attendees including parents, educators, therapists, clinicians and students attended this year’s event. One of the highlights of the conference was a panel of teens with autism who talked about their experiences living on the spectrum.
Once IMFAR opened on Thursday, the spotlight focused on several advocates who were honored at the Awards Reception. In addition to awarding Dr. Margaret Baumen from MassGeneral Hospital with the Lifetime Achievement Award, the INSAR board of directors created a new annual award called the INSAR Advocate Award for the important contributions that advocates make to research. Appropriately, the inaugural award was given to the founders of the organizations that started IMFAR ten years ago, Portia Iversen and Jonathan Shestack from Cure Autism Now (CAN) and Karen and Eric London from the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR).
The INSAR board also gave a Special Recognition Award (posthumously) to Bernard Rimland, PhD who is widely recognized for his discovery of the powerful evidence that autism is a biologic disorder and not due to poor parenting. Dr. Rimland later formed the National Society for Autistic Children, which is now known as the Autism Society of America, as well as the Autism Research Institute. This honor was especially fitting because San Diego was his home. His wife Gloria and son Mark were on hand to accept the award and enjoyed a standing ovation in memory of Dr. Rimland’s significant contributions to autism research.
A special surprise greeted those who attended the annual reception at the conclusion of day one. Under beautiful sunny skies on the rooftop deck of the Manchester Hyatt Hotel, IMFAR attendees were treated to a wonderfully entertaining performance by some of the stars from “Autism: The Musical”, the Emmy-winning HBO documentary. Not surprisingly, autism researchers know how to have a good time thanks to the musical talents and personalities presented by these teens.
On Friday, the annual Stakeholder Networking Luncheon, sponsored by Autism Speaks, was held to encourage greater interaction between the autism researchers and members of the stakeholder community. This year’s event attracted over 90 participants, up from about 60 the year prior. Most of the attendees were parents or grandparents, with about a dozen participants being autistic individuals and another dozen being siblings of a person with autism.
The luncheon included presentations by both scientists (INSAR President David Amaral from UC Davis, IMFAR Keynote Speaker Ricardo Dolmetsch from Stanford University and ATN Clinical Coordinating Center Director James Perrin from MassGeneral Hospital) as well as stakeholders (parent/researcher Sarah Logan from Medical University of South Carolina and autistic self-advocate/author John Elder Robison). Stay tuned for video highlights of the luncheon by Alex Plank and his crew from Wrong Planet.
During her brief remarks at the end of the luncheon, Sarah Logan, who is a PhD student at Medical University of South Carolina as well as the mother of a 14 year old boy with autism, referenced a quote from Albert Einstein: “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” She eloquently pointed out that as stakeholders, it’s natural (and easy) to become emotionally invested. Yet IMFAR presents science as science – with passionately curious individuals who can find harmony between the emotionally invested and the empirically driven.
Sarah further explained: “At the end of the day, one thing we all have in common is that we want a better quality of life for our loved ones living with autism. And that comes with knowledge. Knowledge is power. IMFAR is an amazing place to both gain, and share knowledge that will lead to improved quality of lives for all of those involved – parent, individuals, caregivers, families and siblings.”
This is a guest blog post from Autism Speaks Science Board member John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s and Be Different: Adventured of a Free-Range Aspergian.
There is a lot of talk about the need for therapies for adults with autism. A review of emerging adolescent therapies suggests that many can be applied to adults with minimal adaption. Testing/validating of what we have will be a lot less costly than developing something new.
More and more, scientists agree that autism is the result of genetic predisposition and a trigger. Many hoped the “trigger” was a simple chemical like mercury, but we are realizing there are both environmental and disease triggers. Unfortunately, knowing they are there does not make them any easier to find. Identifying pathways into autism for a large part of our population remains an elusive goal.
One of the things that pleased me most at this year’s IMFAR conference was the way that advocates and journalists are finally coming together and finding common ground. “As Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism” editor Shannon Rosa said, science doesn’t have a hidden agenda…
This year’s Autism Speaks “Autism Connects” technology competition drew over 130 technical and engineering students to develop tools to help people with communication disabilities. For me, the most important take-away was not the entries themselves but the realization that we have so much to gain by drawing technical people from other fields, like industrial design and computer science into autism research.
For some time we have known that that therapies like ABA teach behaviors, not feelings. For example, we (autistic people) can learn to read a face and realize, “he’s happy,” but that logical knowledge does not often translate to us experiencing the feeling. At this year’s IMFAR Susan Bookheimer of UCLA spent quite a bit of time showing me what imaging studies are teaching us about how we may soon help autistic people feel that happy message and thereby feel happy themselves. That will represent a quantum leap in the power and effectiveness of therapy.
I’ve heard comments about “the rolling walk of autistic people” before. This year I saw results of a study from the University of Fairfield that actually quantified differences in gaits between autistic and NT people. Why do we walk in a sawtooth pattern where NT people walk in a straight line? The researcher had some ideas, but why remains a mystery.
For years people have looked at nonverbal people (autistic or otherwise) and wondered… what’s going inside their brains? If a person can’t talk, they can’t take a conventional IQ test, and rightly or wrongly, many have been presumed intellectually disabled for lack of evidence to the contrary. Today, researchers are using both high precision EEG and fMRI imaging to measure brain patterns in response to stimuli. For example, when a person sees a cat and hears the word cat there is one characteristic pattern of activity. When the person sees a cat and hears dog, the mismatch causes a different activation. We can measure those responses, even in people who don’t talk, and thereby gain insight into how much they are perceiving and thinking, and how fast. Understanding is the precursor to therapy.
This year many scientists who have family members on the spectrum proudly wore stakeholder ribbons on their name tags. At the stakeholder lunch, we discussed the balance between funding community services and funding science. Without science, all we have to care for the disabled is faith and compassion. The addition of science-based medicine is what’s taken us from life in the Middle Ages to where we are today. Science provides the foundation to make community and family services work better. That’s why we need it.
When I spoke at the luncheon yesterday, I reminded people that we are all sitting here in safety, but in the middle of our country, one hundred million pounds of water are flowing past Red River Landing on the Mississippi River every single second, and the rate is rising still. That flood could cause the loss of the Old River Control Structure, which is what keeps the Mississippi from changing course and flowing to the Gulf at Morgan City instead of New Orleans. If that happens as a result of this historic flood (already greater than any we’ve seen in 80 years) our country could be facing the worst natural disaster in its history.
If you’re a praying person, now is the time to pray for all those people in the Mississippi floodplain. As much as I believe in science and engineering, if I had to lay money on the Army Corp of Engineers or Nature, I’d have to choose nature.
Why Nature? In the world of autism, the brain nature has given us provides the most complex puzzle man has ever attempted to solve. Out on the river, this flood shows once again how all our science and technology sometimes fades to insignificance before the natural world. Yet we go forward with faith that science will bring us the solutions we need, both on the river and in our heads.
On a personal note, I was pleased to see grad students and researchers whose work I have supported through my participation in review boards bringing the fruits of their work to IMFAR. It made me feel like I had a small part in the collective success of our group, and that feels good.
I was also thrilled to see that Alex Plank (a young man with Asperger’s) was filming the conference and he’ll be sharing it soon on the Autism Speaks and Wrong Planet websites, and elsewhere.
In closing I’d like to thank all the friends I’ve made in this community, and also the folks at INSAR and Autism Speaks, who made it possible for me to attend this conference. I’ll see you next year in Toronto!