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March 17, 2011 Volume 32, No. 24

At Thompson Center, research and treatment of autism come together

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LEADING EDGE Joel Bregman was named executive director of MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders in December. With the rate of autism-spectrum disorders on the rise, one of his objectives is to educate the next generation of researchers and clinicians. “The field of autism is still in its infancy," he says. Nicholas Benner photo


Expanding knowledge to meet a growing challenge

Things have changed since Joel Bregman first began studying autism-spectrum disorders nearly 20 years ago. Autism was once considered an anomaly that affected about four or five children in every 10,000. Today, it’s an estimated 100 in every 10,000.

“I can think back 10 or 15 years ago of children and adolescents that I saw that I didn’t think had an autism disorder, and now I’m certain they did,” said Bregman, executive director of MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. “It’s just that we didn’t have

enough knowledge, and we would use different words to describe them, but they really did have that same inability to understand people.”

Bregman, who graduated from Yale University School of Medicine in 1978, has taught at Yale, Emory University and the University of Connecticut. He was named director of the Thompson Center in December, shortly after the center completed the move to a 26,000-square-foot facility at 205 Portland St. The new building offers a range of health, educational and behavioral services in one location, including diagnostic and assessment clinics, a speech and language clinic, behavior intervention services and resources for families. 

Bregman, who was an associate investigator at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and medical director at the Emory Autism Resource Center before coming to MU, said that one of his main objectives is to educate the next generation of researchers and doctors.

“My goal is to help younger people coming up in the field and really try to nurture their careers and help them advance and grow,” he said.

Bregman said one reason scientists and doctors misunderstood autism for so long was a tendency to only look for the classic signs, such as problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, impaired social interaction and repetitive behaviors. But the severity of the disorder and the functionality of those who have it can vary greatly in each case.

“We’re now aware of more heterogeneity within the population,” he said. “Not everyone has the exact same profile because different areas of development can be affected in various degrees. So cognition and development can be affected; certainly social development and communication, behavioral and emotional. The primary problem is the same, but it gets expressed in different ways.”

The Thompson Center’s mission is to bring together the ever-growing need for research, training and treatment of autism and related disorders. The center ties together the many fields and specialties that deal with autism in a more cooperative and translational way. Research that begins in the laboratories is then used in clinical testing and eventually can be implemented for evaluation tools and treatment.

Janine Stichter, a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Special Education, points to her work in social-competence intervention as an example of how the translational approach allows for quicker results. Stichter said that psychologists, pediatricians and speech language pathologists affiliated with the Thompson Center were able to employ her research findings at local schools through a federal grant.

“The number of patients impacted and the degree of success we have had with this intervention would not have been realized without this level of interdisciplinary collaboration and without the benefit of training our MU students across these disciplines,” she said.

Stichter said that the Thompson Center is an important asset for the university. The facility not only allows current students to learn about the field, but it can also attract top-notch students to MU who will later bring cutting-edge treatment to families in their communities.

“It’s easy to name something a center, but with the Thompson Center, we can truly show that we’re not just talking the talk,” she said. “We’re truly doing interdisciplinary research and training.”

Bregman said this is key to expanding current knowledge on autism-spectrum disorders.

“The field of a autism is still in its infancy, so we don’t have many answers — we have a lot of questions,” he said. “So it’s really incumbent on us to learn as much as we can and really test out what we’re doing to ensure effectiveness and modify treatment approaches based on evidence-based research.”

— Kelly Nelson