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April 18, 2013 Volume 34, No. 27

New leader of MU’s autism center to expand training and interdisciplinary research

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HELPING OTHERS Stephen Kanne, who became executive director of the Thompson Center last September, said the most rewarding part of his job is working with patients and their families. The center handles more than 6,700 service visits of autism patients over a 12-month span. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Center training autism professionals across Missouri

Twenty years ago, autism was thought to be a disorder involving a single gene. Today, scientists know of more than 300 genes that may contribute to the condition. Once there were few autism studies. These days autism research proliferates, helping develop clinical treatments and prescription medications to allay the broadening window of symptoms discovered by experts.

MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders has contributed to this autism renaissance. Cutting-edge MU research, clinical treatment, and behavioral training workshops are helping harness a disorder that impacts approximately 1 percent of American children ages 3 to 17, according to a recent National Children’s Health Survey. 

Last September, the center welcomed Stephen Kanne as its executive director. He plans to expand autism interdisciplinary research among MU faculty and develop the center’s training component. Kanne will speak today to medical professionals about refining autism diagnoses at a pre-conference workshop to the Autism Intervention Conference, happening Friday and Saturday at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia. Conference registration is available each day of the events

Much of Kanne’s time this month during Autism Awareness Month involves his conducting training sessions for medical and other health professionals at autism clinics in Texas and Missouri. 

“Leveraging the expertise of the Thompson Center professionals through training others across the state will contribute to the ability to diagnose and treat more individuals,” Kanne said. 

Founded in 2005, the Thompson Center at 205 Portland St. is a two-story 26,000-square-foot complex with inviting warm-colored treatment rooms fitted with subtle dome-shaped cameras, one-way mirrors and bright wooden tables and chairs. The ambiance is friendly and inviting, not sterile and clinical. 

The center employs eight psychologists; four behaviorists; six medical doctors; four health occupation therapists; eight health care professionals; and six special educators and social workers. The breadth of experts suggests the range of autism diagnoses. 

The center also offers other neurodevelopmental services. Of the total 10,584 service visits in fiscal 2012, 6,737 were for autism and 3,847 were for other conditions. 

Boys are diagnosed with autism four times more often than girls. Core symptoms are problems relating to others and poor communication skills. Many also have restrictive repetitive behaviors, such as staring at their moving fingers or making noises. Some children have highly restricted interests; they might talk obsessively about an arcane subject or fixate on an object. Kanne said one child treated at the center lived and breathed vacuum cleaners. Upon visiting a home, he would search closets and basements for the cleaning machines. 

The center’s expertise in autism doesn’t mean the diagnosis is automatic. About 40 percent of center patients are not diagnosed with the malady, Kanne said. “It has to impair your functioning,” he said. “It’s not like some quirky kid is going to be diagnosed with autism.”

Born and raised in St. Louis, Kanne received his PhD in pediatric neuropsychology in 1999. He was a neuropsychologist at the Thompson Center from 2005 to 2011, when he accepted the director position at the Autism Center at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, a new facility. He brought back a slightly new perspective from his short Texas stint, though he offered no details. “Broadening your horizons helps you find the good things out there that you can bring back to MU,” Kanne said.

There are other autism institutes known nationally, such as the MIND Institute at the University of California–Davis for its research. But the Thompson Center stands out for its combination of research, training and clinical work. 

For fiscal 2012, the center had 25 active research projects under way using more than $2.5 million in funding. The research is founded in interdisciplinary collaboration, drawing on the knowledge of its experts. The center also forms research partnerships outside its walls. For example, it has partnered with the College of Engineering to develop a pupillary light reflex device to detect as early as possible neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

Training Missouri medical professionals is another task of the center. Aiding the training is the recent publication of the second edition of Autism Spectrum Disorders: Guide to Evidence-based Interventions. Praised by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, the best practices manual is sponsored by the Thompson Center, Mercy Hospital in St. Louis and Springfield, Mo., and other state health groups. The edition has already created an impact across the state, Kanne said.

The center’s clinical side brings the child’s family into the conversation. Parents typically are included in the sessions with behaviorists and psychologists. For Kanne, working with patients and family to bring about the best possible individualized treatment is the most rewarding part of the job.

“I am so honored to work alongside people for whom the words ‘patient-centered’ and ‘health home’ are not industry catchphrases, but concepts to embrace and nurture,” Kanne said.

Read more on Thompson Center research here.