Public panel brings autism experts together at UO

Wendy Ricketts and her son, George, share a laugh
Wendy Ricketts and her son, George, share a laugh

Wendy Ricketts suspected that the behavior of her then-3-year-old, George, wasn’t normal. He was a biter and prone to tantrums, but the experts said it was just a phase.

Unconvinced, Ricketts pressed on, seeking second and third opinions and evaluation after evaluation. Ultimately, she got the answer that seemed to fit: George showed signs of autism.

With autism, no two cases look alike, Ricketts said, and she learned a valuable lesson: “If you have a gut feeling that there’s something up with your kid, follow it. Get two or three answers before you give up. Get second opinions on your second opinions.”

That’s the message that Ricketts, of Lake Oswego, will deliver during an upcoming autism seminar and panel that features an international expert and a team of specialists from the University of Oregon.

"The Science of Autism" brings together researchers, advocates and service providers to discuss autism prevalence, research, best practices in identification and intervention and family-based services. It runs from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, in the Ford Alumni Center, 1720 E. 13th Ave., Eugene; the seminar will also be video recorded and hosted on The UO Channel.

“We aim to engage with the community and provide an overview of a number of initiatives that the University of Oregon’s College of Education has identified in the area of autism, as well as discuss the latest in autism research,” said organizer Laura Lee McIntyre, an associate professor with the university’s Special Education and Clinical Sciences department.

Dr. Eric Fombonne, of Oregon Health and Science University, will provide the keynote address: “Is Autism an Epidemic? Update on Rates, Trends, and New Studies.”

Fombonne, a psychiatry professor and director of autism research at OHSU’s Institute on Development and Disability, travels the world to raise autism awareness and work with governments on responses.

Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. About 1 percent of children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder; In Oregon, that translates to 10,000 people under age 18.

But there is no way to determine whether there is an “epidemic” of autism because the disability has not been directly and consistently tracked over time, Fombonne said.

It’s possible that changes in the definition and diagnosis of autism account for increases in autism, Fombonne said; it’s also possible that the increase is partly due to environmental factors that could include the older age of parents, fertility drugs and diets during pregnancy.

“We cannot say there is an epidemic of autism per se,” Fombonne said. “But I’m not saying that I know for sure that there is not an epidemic.”

Scientists are certain, however, that vaccines are not to blame. It’s been long established that there is no link between vaccines and autism, Fombonne said, “yet the public is still scared about that.”

In addition to the address, autism experts will hold a panel discussion on the latest developments. Panelists include:

  • McIntyre, of Special Education and Clinical Sciences
  • Philip Washbourne, associate professor of biology and Institute of Neuroscience, University of Oregon
  • Judy Newman, co-director of Early Childhood CARES, College of Education, UO
  • Ricketts, patron of the college.

Washbourne’s latest research delves into the formation of nerve synapses, contributing to a better understanding of autism and other developmental disabilities. The scientist is also studying medical approaches to help autism patients.

"Up until now my research has been focused on the basics of neural development, with a view to autism," Washbourne said. "Now I'm changing gears to consider medical research, and that's exciting for me."

Newman, of Early Childhood CARES, a service provider, said one of the biggest hurdles is making the public aware of the support that is available.

Her center provides numerous services for children with autism and other developmental disabilities and delays: home visits, parent-child-toddler groups, classroom support to teachers, structured classrooms and specialists for speech, language, occupational/physical therapy, behavior, early intervention and special education.

The services are free to any eligible child in Lane County and similar services are provided throughout the state and across the nation, Newman said.

She stressed the importance of early assessment and intervention: “The earlier we identify kids who have autism and work with children and their families, the better the outcomes are,” Newman said.

The event is presented by the university’s College of Education and Alumni Association.

Tim Clevenger, executive director of the association, said alumni have requested more family-oriented programs and the college was the obvious choice for collaboration. More than 100 alumni plan to attend.

“We’re trying to do different things to bring alumni together and make the university stronger,” Clevenger said. “If you look at the statistics, there are so many families who are impacted by autism – either directly or through relatives or friends – and that makes the seminar relevant and timely for our alumni.”

The interventions, support and expertise within the College of Education, Dean Mike Bullis said, position it “to take a leadership role in the study and family-based treatment of autism.”

Ricketts, whose husband, Bart, serves on the college Advisory Council, said parents of autistic children must be strong advocates for their kids, even if it means being “a bit pushy.”

Their son, George, has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. But even after they had successfully lobbied for George to receive an individualized education program, the Rickettses had to work with teachers on every detail – does George have enough help with communication? Are the proper goals in place to help him handle disappointment? Is the plan being constantly monitored to address deficit areas?

Today, George Ricketts looks and acts like any other 10-year-old. He plays video games and talks knowledgeably about Ducks football; he’s even played a full season of football himself, although he stuck with practices to avoid the anxiety of trying to win.

“These kids can be really productive in the community,” Bart said. “The key is getting people in our communities to understand what's going on in an autistic child's perception, and how better to relate to them. This panel presentation and initiatives in the College of Education can make significant advancements in this area.”

Tickets are $5 for UOAA members and $15 for nonmembers. The event is free for k-12 teachers and all k-12 and UO students. Register online or by phone at 1-800-245-ALUM (2586).

For more information, contact alumni@uoregon.edu. For questions about the recording, contact Cody Pinkston, directing of marketing for the college.

- story and photo by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications