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Groundbreaking autism researcher visits Lehigh



Geraldine Dawson

Sitting a few rows from the stage in Lehigh’s Packard Lab auditorium on Thursday evening, Christina Blair readied a note pad and chatted with her husband.

As parents of a six-year-old autistic child, the Blairs were eagerly awaiting a public lecture by Geraldine Dawson, Chief Science Officer (CSO) of Autism Speaks.

Dawson, who visited Lehigh March 18-19 for a series of events and lectures, was a source of information on autism that the Blairs were eager to tap into. Like other parents in attendance, the Blairs were hoping to glean any information from her lecture that would help them better understand their son’s condition.

“A lot of the information on autism requires your own research and it’s nice to have a credible speaker who’s been involved in this work for so long,” says Blair, who came from nearby Forks Township, Pa.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that affects as many as 550,000 people under 21 years of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The odds of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are now one in 150.

Dawson has oversight of over $30 million in research at Autism Speaks, which funds global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments, and cure for autism and raises public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and society.

Dawson, whose visit was made possible by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for Undergraduate Bioscience Education, spoke with various groups on campus to present the highlights and new directions of work in autism. She kicked off her visit with a technical seminar entitled “Early Intervention, Brain Plasticity, and the Prevention of Autism,” and later met with small groups of Lehigh researchers.

"Dr. Dawson’s command of research in the autism field (for which she has contributed a significant amount) as well as her sincere dedication to her life's work to improve the quality of life for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, was the catalyst that brought diverse groups of individuals together during her visit at Lehigh,” said Neal Simon, professor of biological sciences and co-director of the HHMI program grant. “Her visit spawned the potential for novel interactions between these diverse groups of individuals.”

Dawson also held two open discussions during her visit—the first for parents and caregivers and the second for mental health professionals and teachers. Blair, who attended the first session, said the opportunity to meet with other parents and tap Dawson’s expertise was extremely helpful. It prompted them to attend the public lecture Thursday evening entitled “New Directions in Research on the Causes, Detection, and Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

“Autism is a highly prevalent condition and now really considered a public health challenge,” Dawson told her audience as she began to outline research efforts now underway. Autism Speaks is examining the causes of autism, including both the genetic and environmental risk factors. Other research is focused on early detection in at-risk infants using behavioral, biological and electrophysiological approaches before the full spectrum disorder manifests.

Dawson also stressed the importance of early intervention and cited the need for an autism-specific curriculum, a structured therapeutic setting for children with autism, and strong involvement by family members.

“Dr. Dawson’s visit was an extraordinary opportunity for the community at large,” said Vassie Ware, associate professor of biological sciences and co-director of the HHMI program grant. “The broad appeal of the topic of autism for the research community, educators, parents, and students was apparent. I could not have been more thrilled with how the visit fit into the broader goals of our HHMI Bioscience Education Program at Lehigh.”

Autism will also be the focus of an upcoming Lehigh event on Sunday, May 3, at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall. The College of Education will host “Navigating the Autism Maze”, an afternoon of discussion featuring five nationally recognized experts on Autism Spectrum Disorders.

--Tricia Long

Photo by Maria Brace


Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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