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New Ph.D. program in autism could help spur new research

A program is working to bring together different facets of autism specialization into one setting, as data shows 1 in 36 children are on the spectrum.
New Ph.D. program in autism could help spur new research
Posted at 10:39 AM, May 01, 2023

Inside a university library, an exercise is underway.

A program called Work Possibilities is helping people with autism practice social and communication skills in the workplace.

"We have multiple types of programs and events that we offer for autistic adults," said said Doug DeHaan, director of the Hussman Center for Adults with Autism.

It's all happening on the campus of Towson University in Maryland, which just launched a new Ph.D. program specifically focusing on autism studies. 

"Out there, there are growing avenues for how we research autism. So, not just looking at the genetics or the cause, the etiology — but thinking more about transition into adulthood and the kinds of supports in the community that can be put in place," said Kaitlyn Wilson, Towson's Autism Studies Ph.D. Director.

The idea behind the new program is to bring together different facets of autism specialization into one setting.

Emma Shipley is applying to the program.

"I had always wanted to do a doctorate," she said. "But there aren't a ton of programs that related to what I wanted to do in this area."

A self-described "theater kid," Shipley currently works in speech pathology with teenagers and adults with autism and sees new autism research opportunities, which could include using improvisation to improve communication skills.

"I'm really interested in improvisational theater techniques to improve communication skills," Shipley said. "There's been a movement in the last several years, in terms of the neurodiversity movement of supporting autistic individuals and other neurodivergent populations, rather than attempting to change or to fix their neurodivergence."

SEE MORE: New program gives people with autism the skills, confidence to drive

New numbers out from the CDC found that 2.8% of 8-year-old children are on the autism spectrum. That's 1 in 36 children. That figure is higher than what was found in the previous report in 2018, which showed that number to be 1 in 44, or 2.3%.

The new Towson program will enroll seven Ph.D. candidates, all of whom will be required to undertake a research project related to autism.

"I certainly expect that there will be very exciting outcomes to the research that our Ph.D. students do in this program," Wilson said. "So, I think the novel ideas that will come in through our Ph.D. students will definitely make changes."

The world of autism is one that Darren Edwards is now grappling with.

"I was having some issues that were similar to what other college students who have autism go through," Edwards said. "So, I decided to get the testing."

That was in October. The testing diagnosed Edwards with autism.

"I hope that the people in the Ph.D. are interested in improving the lives of undergraduate and graduate students who have autism," Edwards said.

Playing a key role in that will be the university's Hussman Center for Adults with Autism.

With 1 in 36 children diagnosed with autism, DeHaan said that sometimes the focus on autism stops there.

"Typically, when you think of 1 in 36, you think of the young adult, the kids — and little do people think about how all of those individuals grow up to be adults," DeHaan said. "And so, it's not a high-researched area currently."

However, DeHaan added, he expects the new Ph.D. program to change that.

"I'm really excited about that," he said.

It's a program that could open new avenues into autism research.

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