By Deb Dunn
Deb Dunn, selected by Autism Science Foundation as a 2012 IMFAR Travel Grantee, is a parent of two children with ASD and Outreach Director at Center for Autism Research at CHOP.
I am honored to have been selected as a recipient of a travel grant from the Autism Science Foundation to attend the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), held this May in Toronto, Canada. As both a professional working in the field of autism and the parent of two children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I know of no other conference that packs so much in-depth, meaningful information into just a few days.
I’ve had the good fortune to attend IMFAR in the past. Thus I know firsthand how overwhelming the conference can seem – with new presentations every 15-30 minutes and competing topics of interest being presented at the same time in different rooms. To attempt to convey how IMFAR feels to someone who has never attended, I recorded the Parent’s Guide to IMFAR video post, which is posted on the YouTube channel for the Center for Autism Research (CAR): and on CAR’s blog.
I also created a YouTube video following a presentation I attended on adolescents who “outgrow” their autism diagnosis. The study found that 26% of children moved off the autism spectrum as they aged. However, a large percentage of these individuals moved into other diagnostic categories. My video discusses the potential implications of “optimal outcome,” including how having this mindset might be a disservice to individuals with autism as they enter adulthood.
A number of other presentations piqued my curiosity over the three days of the conference. The first morning, I attended Dr. Ruth Feldman’s keynote presentation, Bio-behavioral Synchrony and the Development of Social Reciprocity, which discussed the benefits of oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone that is currently being tested in some individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Oxytocin has been used to increase social bonding. Unlike the majority of oxytocin studies, however, Dr. Feldman discussed using oxytocin in parents of children with ASD as opposed to in the children themselves. When parents of very young children were administered oxytocin intranasally, oxytocin levels increased not only in the parents who were administered the hormone, but also in their children. This mimicking response showed promise as a prophylactic intervention for children at risk for developing ASD. One concern I had with Dr. Feldman’s presentation, however, was the potential for her research to be misconstrued. For too long, parents – particularly “Refrigerator Mothers” – were considered at fault for their children’s autism. I don’t think Dr. Feldman intended to imply that parents are not capable of bonding with their children and thus are responsible for their children’s autism, but several parents I spoke with in the room came away with a feeling that once again parents were being blamed.
Throughout the conference, there was much discussion of the proposed revisions to the definition of pervasive developmental disorders/autism spectrum disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM-5. Presentations discussing the changes were particularly popular at the conference, especially the special session on Friday afternoon, presented by the members of the DSM-5 Neurodevelopmental Disorders Workgroup. In this session, I learned much about the process of making the changes as well as their substance. I took this information and created, with input from two of my co-workers who attended the conference, a handout for parents to help them understand what the changes are and the potential implications. This handout has been distributed at many conferences in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and is available on in PDF form on CAR’s website. It is also on the website for autismMatch, a registry for families interested in participating in autism research, and was sent to over 10,000 subscribers of CAR’s email newsletter. Additionally, I presented on DSM-5 changes as part of a presentation to parents of adolescents with ASD in September and have been asked to do another presentation in 2013.
On Friday of the conference, I had the good fortune to attend the Autism Stakeholders Luncheon. Dr. Beth Malow discussed sleep issues in children with ASD, Dr. Marjorie Solomon talked about a topic of special interest to many stakeholders in the room – friendship during adolescence, Dr. Susan Swedo discussed DSM-5 changes and communicated her own distress at the way media stories had sensationalized the changes and vilified her committee, and Dr. Matthew Goodwin discussed new ways to measure distress in children with ASD by monitoring physical symptoms of stress.
Saturday of the conference continued to be full of information and insight. I attended Dr. Alan Evan’s keynote address that morning, Structural Connectivity in Neurodevelopment, in which he described brain connections using the analogy of roads. Brains should be globally efficient, with clusters of local roads, connector hubs, and highways for traveling long distance. As someone who frequently speaks to parents about autism neuroimaging research, I found Dr. Evan’s presentation a good model to follow in simplifying difficult concepts for a lay audience. (For me, this presentation was a nice complement to the Invited Educational Symposium on Communicating Autism Science, which was held Thursday afternoon.)
In addition to the dozens of presentations I attended at IMFAR, I also made several tours through the poster sessions. Frequently the poster session presenters are young students, research assistants, or autism fellows still in training. The enthusiasm and dedication I witnessed in all that I spoke to is encouraging for the future of autism research. I videotaped several of poster presentations and posted them to CAR’s YouTube channel.
I am honored to have been given a grant by the Autism Science Foundation to attend IMFAR 2012. The knowledge I gained from attending continues to permeate my work at the Center for Autism Research and, I hope, informs my discussions with parents of children with ASD. Thank you for the opportunity.