03 May 2017
The Curry School of Education is spearheading an expansion of the University’s work in autism research, training and service.
The Curry School of Education and the UVA Brain Institute along with co-sponsors Virginia Institute of Autism, The Faison Center, and Autism Speaks hosted an interdisciplinary symposium on Wednesday, April 26, 2017 to explore ways to break down research “silos,” and establish a network of relationships to better serve those affected by autism.
The Curry School of Education, a lead sponsor of the symposium, is spearheading an expansion of the University’s work in autism research, training and service, with the objective of eventually establishing a UVA Center for Autism.
Robert Pianta (Dean, Curry School of Education) opened the symposium by expressing the purpose behind the efforts to reach across campus and create a coalition that more comprehensively addresses the challenge represented by autism:
“My vision is that this university will be the place in the country, if not the globe, that develops the knowledge, techniques, and supports that will bring the latest neuroscience out to the community, even in the most isolated places, to support people with autism.”
Ron Suskind (Col ’81), Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author, delivered the keynote speech. He spoke movingly about his experiences with his autistic son, Owen, who regained his ability to communicate through his “affinity” for animated Disney movies.
Suskind expressed a strong sense of optimism about the effort represented by the gathering at Newcomb Hall. He told the group of 70 participants that this was both a special place and moment for a great change in how we perceive autism.

Ron Suskind Delivers Keynote at Autism Symposium Ron Suskind (Col '81) delivers the keynote address at UVA's Autism Symposium on April 26, 2017

“We’re leading a movement now, participatory and powerful,” he said, and urged the audience and panelists to remember the complexity of the human experience, reflected also in diversity of those with autism.
But while the challenges can seem insurmountable, Suskind reminded the group to look for new pathways that can lead to opportunity: “For every deficit, every stressor, there’s somewhere an equal and opposite strength. That’s what the brain does: it finds a way.”
Jaideep Kapur (Eugene Meyer III Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the UVA Brain Institute) opened the morning panels by reminding the participants that there’s still much to understand about autism. He envisions the Brain Institute as an interdisciplinary connector, a meeting point for research and potential services for people with autism. The idea is to create rich relationships across grounds and to extend the reach to families affected by autism. He praised the Curry School for being on the “front lines” along with parents and teachers in improving care delivery.
Kapur spoke of changes that would support autism research: updates in technology for brain imaging, an increase in the size of the neuroscience graduate program—and the potential creation of other cross-disciplinary programs.
The first panel, moderated by Catherine Bradshaw (Curry), focused on autism research at UVA. John Lukens (Neuroscience, BIG) spoke of the gut microbiome and immune system links to autism. Jamie Morris (Psychology) looked at the need to recognize the true heterogeneity of autism as we try to understand how neurological differences translate into social-emotional challenges.
Youjia Hua (University of Iowa, Special Education), who will soon join UVA, described his intensive reading program for young adults with ASD and ABA training program that helps parents and teachers offer services in rural China. Dan Cox drew attention to the lack of resources for adults with ASD and shared his success with a simulation program he uses to help people with autism learn to drive.
Jason Downer moderated the second panel, on UVA partnerships. Vikram Jaswal  (Psychology) has a daughter with autism and teaches a seminar, “The Science and Lived Experience of Autism,” which brings UVA students together with young adults with autism. As a result of his experiences and research, Jaswal sees “autism as an integral aspect of human diversity.”
Jane Hilton (Curry, Sheila Johnson Center) described her summer program “SPLISH!”, which offers intensive speech language interventions to a small group of children ages 2-7. The program also enlists the help of clinical psychologists and graduate students.
Dr. Laura Shaffer (Pediatric Psychology, UVA) and Dr. Richard Stevenson (Developmental Pediatrician, Charlottesville) gave a joint presentation on the diagnostic aspect of autism. Both Dr. Shaffer and Dr. Richardson outlined plans for adding more care providers and creating more partnerships with institutions like Curry to meet the urgent need for early diagnosis.
The final panel of the day was moderated by Bill Therrien (Curry, Special Education) and addressed community partnerships. Fay Painter (Executive Director, Autism Speaks) described the research, outreach, and resources of Autism Speaks and emphasized the need to have “people with autism in this room.” Byron Wine (Faison Center) gave an overview of the services his institution provides to adults with autism, who often find themselves without many resources after they leave public school.
Ethan Long (Virginia Institute of Autism) spoke of VIA’s outreach in the community and its partnership with the Curry School. Long also outlined opportunities for future collaboration with UVA in order to meet long-standing challenges in the autism community, such as high unemployment rates.
Kevin Kirst (Special Education, Albemarle County Public Schools) closed the panel by speaking of a continuum of services and coalition building that can better meet the needs of students with autism. He discussed a new classroom model that has been instituted in Albemarle County to help children with autism build the skills they need to succeed in the classroom.
The gathering at Newcomb showcased the formidable resources available at UVA and across the state that can make the potential Center for Autism a premier institution for autism research, training, and service provision. Robert Pianta summed up the optimism of its potential as he closed the symposium.
“It has been extraordinary,” he said, “Because we just had a day in which one topic brought together an astonishing collection of potential partners within and outside the University.” 
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