Downtown Blacksburg Inc. is proud to present our non-profit Member of the Month for January 2017 – Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research!
Sometimes science gets personal, and that is the case for the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research (VTCAR), where scientists and students work to better understand Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). “Because ASD diagnoses have been increasing,” says Angela Scarpa, director of VTCAR and an associate professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, “most VTCAR affiliates have been touched by autism in some way – through a child, sibling, family member, co-worker, classmate, etc. – and want to help others going through a similar experience.” Dr. Scarpa herself was inspired to offer evidence-based community services and research when her own son was diagnosed with ASD shortly before his second birthday.
The center was established in late 2012 by the College of Science to promote collaborative research on ASD and to increase opportunities for graduate and undergraduate student training in the field. Affiliated researchers engage in outreach to the New River Valley and local communities by offering autism-friendly events, professional training opportunities, family information workshops, scientific lectures, and autism screening. The center also works closely with the VT Autism Clinic in the Psychology Department to offer therapy, counseling, consultations, and diagnostic evaluations.
“Despite its prevalence, there is still very little definitively known about what causes autism,” says Dr. Scarpa. “That’s why we need to unite minds from various disciplines and perspectives to study autism from all angles.”
ASD refers to a range of complex neurodevelopmental conditions that often result in social communication difficulties and repetitive patterns of behavior, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Signs of the disorder can include difficulties with communication or social skills, poor eye contact and joint interaction, and preoccupation with certain objects or subjects.
One out of 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, and it is five times more common in boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of diagnoses has increased, but it’s unclear whether this is due to better identification or an increase in the factors that may be causing the disease.
No matter what factors may be at play, early detection and treatment is the key to creating a healthy lifestyle for patients and their families. The center has developed four research areas, or cores, that specialize in research to improve detection and treatment.
Faculty members working with the biomedical and imaging core led by John Richey, a professor of psychology, seek to identify biomarkers that could be used to detect autism. They also seek to establish links between biological pathways associated with autism and mechanisms of repair in order to contribute to treatment development.
The technology core, led by Denis Gracanin, an associate professor of computer science, is devoted to incorporating technology into autism detection and treatment. Examples of current projects include development and testing of a novel neurotechnology to promote emotion recognition in autism, and the creation of a mobile application for early screening of autism in toddlers.
The purpose of the clinical translational core, led by Scarpa, is to foster research and dissemination of evidence-based practices for screening, diagnostic evaluations, supportive services, and clinical interventions for ASD and related conditions.
Lastly, the education core, led by Amy Azano, an assistant professor of education, provides support to researchers seeking to understand the experience for students with ASD, including academic diagnoses, educational interventions, social skills development, literacy needs, transition services, and career development.
Our center aims to “merge science with service” through the four core research areas, so scientific findings can be translated into evidence-based practices. Our hope is that by partnering with scientists, clinicians, educators, and the community we can improve the lives of people with autism, paving the way for their full participation and inclusion in our communities from childhood to old age.
The center is also supported by the Fralin Life Science Institute, the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, the College of Science, the Department of Psychology, and generous community donations. For more information about the center, see our website at www.vtcar.science.vt.edu.
The SAFE Program
Supporting Autism Friendly Environments
SAFE (Supporting Autism Friendly Environments) is a community outreach program supported by the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research (VTCAR). The SAFE program partners with organizations, local businesses, venues, and others to implement low or no cost interventions designed to increase community access for individuals with autism.
SAFE has two primary goals: (1) to provide everyday access to local businesses, venues, and community events for individuals with autism; and (2) to encourage a culture of awareness and acceptance in our community.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability typically causing significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. These challenges can make it difficult for individuals with autism to participate in typical activities, join clubs, go to camps, get and maintain jobs, or attend events like watching a parade, going out to the movies, attending a game or performance, or eating out at a restaurant. SAFE supports greater access to these opportunities by advocating for inclusive practices, educating community partners, and supporting implementation of low or no cost interventions.
Please contact us to discuss ways to make your community event or business autism friendly. Be part of a community that cares. Become a SAFE partner today!
VTCAR Education Core
The Education Core provides support to researchers seeking to understand the PK-16 experience for students with ASD, including academic diagnoses, educational interventions, social skills development, literacy needs, transition services, and career development. This core research area has two purposes. One purpose is to engage in educational outreach on behalf of VTCAR investigators to address the educational challenges of students with ASD. This outreach might include professional development and training for teachers and service providers and securing grants to support the educational experiences of students with ASD in the community. The second purpose is to foster research to identify and address educational challenges and produce evidence-based practices designed to mitigate those challenges. This trans-disciplinary research focus in education will bring greater understanding to the intersection of ASD and schooling and lead to data driven practices aimed at facilitating the academic, emotional, and social education for students with ASD.
SAFE Contact and Core Area Director:
Amy Price Azano, Ph.D., firstname.lastname@example.org, (540) 231-8889
Angela Scarpa, Ph.D., email@example.com, (540) 231-8747