Adding new perspectives to autism research
Since its founding in 1998, the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has been committed to ensuring that autism science continuously benefits from new thinking, new approaches, new perspectives and the insights that come from interdisciplinary studies. That's why the Autism Research Training Program was launched two years ago. Its main goal is to create a new wave of talented experts in autism research.Currently, a select group of six postdoctoral researchers is participating in the training program, which is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
— autism researcher Sally Rogers
“It's not enough for a researcher to simply have laboratory expertise or clinical experiences in working with autism,” said Sally Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the program's director. “Finding a cause, a new treatment or a cure demands integration of a variety of vantage points — from the molecular to the behavioral. Our goal is to make sure that the next generation of autism scientists is fully prepared to work with scientists from a range of disciplines.”
Jane Weru: A research star
All trainees are expected to make strong contributions to the field of autism science. And one of those rising stars is Jane Weru. She has launched a cross-cultural study comparing the beliefs of African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans about the disorder.
Weru is from Kenya and has first-hand experience with such cross-cultural issues. What led her to study autism was an experience she had in Kenya with a friend's brother. When she would visit, the brother would hide behind the house and refuse to look at her or to say hello. Later, while earning college degrees in psychology and special education in the United States, Weru recalled that boy: “I remembered everything that boy was doing, and in my mind I diagnosed him as having autism.”
Unfortunately, in Kenya there are no services for children with autism, so the boy never received treatment. “He is about 21 now and his symptoms have not improved,” she said. As a result, Weru came to the autism research program with a clear goal: “I want to know the cultural factors that can delay diagnosis and intervention.”
Recruiting for a Special Project
For her project, Weru is recruiting African-American and Caucasian-American children ages 5-to-14 years that either have autism or no developmental concerns. One parent who recently enrolled her son in the study came away impressed with Weru's abilities to work with youngsters like her eight-year-old.
“It was exciting to see him participate with her,” said August Chenevert's mother, Shirley. “August worked very well with Dr. Weru and the patience she had with him was wonderful. Her activities and questions made him feel important, which he really liked and responded to.”
Through assessments and questionnaires for families like the Cheneverts, Weru will determine if there are cultural differences in beliefs about autism, its symptoms and its causes and how those beliefs affect seeking help for children. Ideally, her work will provide the foundation for culturally appropriate diagnostic tools and programs.
“Jane's project is important because it explores the influence of culture on the phenotypic expression of autism spectrum disorders, on how people understand autism spectrum disorders, and on the extent to which families access services and cope with the disorder,” said Weru's primary mentor John Brown, a psychologist and coordinator of outreach and training at the M.I.N.D. Institute.
Weru will eventually study developmental disabilities in developing countries, filling a critical gap in current research. “Thanks to this program, I will be well prepared to do the work that really needs to be done,” she said.