April 22, 2005

Fellowship spotlights varied nature of autism

Featured Image

Pat Levitt, Ph.D., discusses brain organization and development with journalists at the recent media fellowship on autism.
photo by Daniel Dubois

Fellowship spotlights varied nature of autism

Vanderbilt's cadre of autism specialists shone for health care reporters who spent three days on campus learning about the constellation of autism spectrum disorders.

The media fellowship, "Living with Autism: Rates, Causes and Treatments," drew nine journalists from around the country — from outlets including CNN, People magazine, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Chronicle of Higher Education — for sessions with faculty to learn about how the spectrum is defined, the rising incidence of the disorders, the controversial vaccine link and the hunt for associated genes. Faculty from across the Medical Center and Peabody, most of whom are Kennedy Center investigators, participated.

"I thought it was fantastic," said Wendy Stone, Ph.D., a professor in the Center for Child Development. "The journalists were eager for information that would help them analyze and interpret the stories that come across their desks, with the goal of providing more accurate reports on autism. The interchange between the Vanderbilt scientists and the journalists was lively and productive, whether it focused on the 'hot' topics surrounding autism or the universal issues confronting each of us in our attempt to make a difference."

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., an author and assistant professor of animal behavior at Colorado State University, gave the keynote lecture to start the event.

Grandin is probably best known for sharing how having Asperger's Syndrome has helped her design more effective and humane machines and processes for handling and slaughtering cattle and swine. Her new book, "Animals in Translation," goes into more detail about how she "understands the way animals think."

In her talk, Grandin described how she came to realize that she "thinks in pictures" and discover how that differs from most other people.

A highlight of the program was a field trip to Gower Elementary, in Bellevue, where a team from Vanderbilt's Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, or TRIAD, instructs teachers in proven methods of educating children with autism.

The fellows watched interaction between TRIAD instructors in a classroom of children and observed various training methods with two students, during which they witnessed a remarkable change in one student from when she was working alone to when she was given detailed, one-on-one instruction.

A parent panel also spent almost two hours with the fellows, describing their children and the challenges they face as parents, from obtaining an accurate diagnosis to accessing helpful services.

"I've been to a bunch of seminars in my time, but have never seen one more intelligently organized, benevolently supervised, pleasant and hospitable," said Dale Short, a radio producer and reporter from Birmingham, Ala.

"I am optimistic that we will see changes in the nature of reporting about autism from this group of journalists; changes that will hopefully spread to their peers," Stone said.

"The participants were a remarkably talented and conscientious group of individuals who asked the right questions and are enthusiastic in their efforts to do the right thing."

The fellowship was endorsed by CASE, the Counsel for the Advancement and Support of Education, and was sponsored by the University News Service and the Medical Center Office of News & Public Affairs.