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Adults with Autism: Sharing Ideas, Filling the Gaps

January 30, 2012 30 comments

Guest post by Merope Pavlides, editor of AutismAfter16.com, author of Animal-assisted Interventions for Individuals with Autism and mom to two sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.

Autism is not a condition of childhood. Autism follows the person. It follows the person into the workplace, the community, adult relationships and health care. Until recently, however, little attention has been paid to issues surrounding adulthood with autism. Fortunately, we have now begun a national dialogue, and Autism Speaks is bringing its voice—and resources—to the discussion in a big way.

On January 26th, Autism Speaks held a research summit entitled, “Adults with Autism: Sharing Ideas, Filling the Gaps,” in Chapel Hill, NC. The event was co-hosted by Extraordinary Ventures, a model employer of adults with autism. Extraordinary Ventures was founded by Autism Speaks supporters and parents Lori and Gregg Ireland.

The meeting brought together many premier scholars on adult autism issues, as well as Autism Speaks representatives, autism service providers, parents and donors. My husband, Peter Emch, and I were invited to participate as parents and long-time supporters of Autism Speaks. The very fact that Autism Speaks included parents in an event like this is hugely meaningful, because it grounds the research agenda in real-world experience and need.

Moderated by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer, Geri Dawson, Ph.D., the meeting provided the opportunity for investigators to present overviews of current research projects funded by Autism Speaks and for all participants to ask questions and share ideas. The morning session showcased studies aimed at describing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in adults, while we spent the afternoon with prescriptive research involving topics such as how to improve interventions.

Morning keynote speaker Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin’s Waisman Center, outlined “Trajectories of Development in Adolescents and Adults with ASD.” Afternoon headliner Paul Shattuck, Ph.D., of Washington University, discussed “Service Use and Outcomes among Youth with ASD.” I found it interesting that both Seltzer and Shattuck noted that, despite few published studies on adults with autism, there is an abundance of data awaiting analysis. This means that we need to be investing resources in finding the meaning in the information that’s already available.

As a parent of a young adult with autism, it’s gratifying to sit in a room with so many smart, energetic people and learn that they want to bring their talent and enthusiasm to bear on the same issues that worry me as a parent. I’m also a special educator. As such, I’m so glad to see researchers demonstrating concern for how academic findings translate into real-life practice. While it’s crucial that we continue to deepen our understanding of what life is like for adults with autism, it’s just as important to make immediate progress in improving their lives.

I was especially excited to hear so much conversation on the topic of our adults as learners. As a society, we tend to think about the autism service system for adults as involved exclusively in care giving. Rather we need to develop dynamic supports that provide ongoing opportunities for personal growth and development. The summit allowed those who are studying adult needs to connect with those who are examining skill-building models. It’s this type of collaboration that fosters new programs that not only look good on paper, but also work in the real world.

Finally, participating in an event like this reminds me of how important it is for families to understand that they are integral to the research process. Sometimes we feel as though investigators go about their work in ivory towers without understanding the real needs of those on the ground. As families, we must be active participants in the research process. Not only in the sense of filling out questionnaires and providing information, but in terms of actively making use of the knowledge emerging from this research. That doesn’t mean we need to bury our noses in scholarly journals. It does mean that we need to enter into thoughtful discussion with scientists about how to incorporate what they are learning into what we need from adult service providers. Good scholarship is being conducted through Autism Speaks funding. As a community, let’s not allow it to happen in a vacuum.

[Editor’s note: Thanks to our grant search engine, you can explore Autism Speaks-funded research concerning adolescents, adults and related services here.]

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