Autism Speaks and UNTHSC team up to meet needs of families affected by autism

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By Alex Branch

Leaders with Autism Speaks search the country for innovative autism research. They found it in front of a 180-degree virtual reality screen at UNT Health Science Center.

There, Thomas Frazier, PhD, looked through glasses containing a tiny camera and moved his body in reaction to the movement of a virtual red ball rolling across the screen.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” said Dr. Frazier, Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest organization devoted to autism research and advocacy.

Dr. Frazier, Angela Geiger, the organization’s President and Chief Executive Officer, and Marianne Sullivan, Director of Community Outreach, got a firsthand look at research being conducted by Haylie Miller, PhD, Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy.

The Health Science Center hosted Autism Speaks leaders at a community science event Oct. 4 that brought together more than 50 advocates, community members, clinicians and families affected by autism for a discussion about the latest advances in autism research.

Dr. Miller holds National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation grants that support her research investigating visuomotor integration in autism spectrum disorder, or the use of visual information to plan, execute and modify movement.

In the Human Movement Performance Laboratory, Dr. Miller and her team demonstrated how studying eye and body movements could help her team see the world as someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) does.

For people with ASD, walking down the street without bumping into others can be a challenge. Dr. Miller wants to know if that is because of differences in how they interpret what they see or a combination of factors.

“It’s very cool,” Dr. Frazier said. “It’s obviously a sensitive paradigm for understanding the interaction between vision and motor and how that could potentially be dysfunctional for people with autism or development coordination disorder.”

Geiger said she appreciated that the laboratory’s research activities were engaging for children with ASD who participate as research subjects.

“It felt a little like I was playing on a Wii up there,” Geiger said. “So it allows you to do data collection in a way that is not terribly invasive to the participant.”

The community event provided stakeholders with opportunities to network, learn about area programs and services, and hear from Autism Speaks leaders about their new mission statement.

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