THE DAILY STUDENT NEWSPAPER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH

Autism Speaks representative talks to Pitt students

Josh Won | February 26, 2012    

One out of every 110 children are born with an autism spectrum disorder, making autism more… One out of every 110 children are born with an autism spectrum disorder, making autism more prevalent among children than AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization, reported this fact in an hour-long presentation to between 20 and 30 students and faculty at Sennott Square on Friday.

Pitt’s chapter of psychology honor society Psi Chi invited Dawson to report on recent developments in the study of autism, including the benefits for autistic-spectrum children of interacting with other children when they are between 6 and 12 months old — a crucial stage of development.

“The idea is to be able to intervene at the earliest stage of development,” Dawson said, emphasizing the use of the Denver Model, a developmental approach to autism treatment that stresses early intervention.

Dawson said that her studies show that autistic children’s IQs increased by as many as 30 points as a result of partaking in social engagement from a young age according to the Denver Model. This includes strategies such as waiting for eye contact, offering interactive choices and positively affirming children’s responses with smiles and laughter.

Psi Chi’s president, Kimberly Ha, said she was happy with the presentation.

“She has a great reputation. She’s a rock star in the field [of autism],” the senior said of Dawson, who has contributed to about 200 scientific articles and 9 books to the area of study.

Dawson’s lecture served as a informative complement to research conducted in the field at Pitt.

“Dawson’s lecturing was so relevant to what our lab does,” senior Emily Schmidt said. “Because the sooner you start the treatment, the more positive the outcome.”

Schmidt, a psychology major, currently works at a lab at Pitt funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. She studies children to find early indications of autism.

From observing behaviors such as pointing and eye contact and filming all the interactions, Schmidt helps determine factors that suggest the development of autism in children who are between 12 and 16 months old.

These indications could help in diagnosing autism in children of very young ages, and, consequently, allow for earlier responses in the treatment of autism. Autism is usually diagnosed in children when they are about 3 years old.

Schmidt said that working with the children isn’t just a good cause — it’s also gratifying.

“It’s really enjoyable,” she said. “And it’s very exciting contributing to a new field of research.”

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