Key role in new national autism centre

Posted on February 20, 2013

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La Trobe University is a core partner in a new $100 million national Co-operative Research Centre to improve the lives of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

With a baffling 25-fold increase in the number of diagnoses over the past 30 years, these severe neuro-developmental disorders affect about a million Australians – and at least one in every 100 children.

Last week Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced government funding of $31 million to establish the new ‘Co-operative Research Centre for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders’.

Director of La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, hailed the new CRC as ‘game changing for Australia’s autism community’.

Great cost to community

Professor Dissanayake, right, with Olga Tennison

Professor Dissanayake, right, with La Trobe autism studies benefactor Olga Tennison

She said Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are life-long conditions estimated to cost Australia more than seven billion dollars a year.

‘We can now harness our work nationally and internationally to achieve better outcomes for people with an ASD, their families and the professionals who work with them.’

La Trobe is a key player in two of the CRC’s three main programs. Professor Dissanayake will lead work on tracking pathways to ASD, while Associate Professor Amanda Richdale will be responsible for studies enhancing teaching and learning for people with ASD.

The new CRC, headquartered in Queensland, represents a ‘critical mass’ of 12 core partners and more than 40 participants, including universities, not-for-profit as well as commercial autism service providers and government departments.

In addition to Federal Government funds of $31 million for the next eight years, contributions to the CRC from various participants exceed $63 million.

Ground-breaking advances

Dr Richdale: enhancing teaching and learning for people with ASD

Autism research at La Trobe University over the last decade has led to many ground-breaking advances.

Early studies into biological markers revealed that children with ASD have faster physical growth rates during their first three years of life. The research was carried out by Professor Dissanayake, medical geneticist Dr Danuta Loesch, and statisticians Dr Richard Huggins and Dr Quang Bui.

Other work – the first of its kind published last year – profiled young children in order to predict treatment responses. Led by Dr Giacomo Vivanti, it represents ‘the first step towards being able to identify which intervention programs are best suited to specific children’, Professor Dissanayake said.

And psychologist Dr Kristelle Hudry was a key researcher in a recent international study that found how a baby’s brain reacts to shifts in eye contact might help predict the development of autism symptoms from as young as six months.

‘Staggering generosity and leadership’

Supported by an extremely generous private donation of a million dollars from benefactor Olga Tennison, in 2008 the University set up Australia’s first research centre dedicated to Autism Spectrum Disorders.

At its opening, Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Disability Services, Bill Shorten, described its formation by Mrs Tennison and Professor Dissanayake, as ‘staggering generosity backed by staggering leadership’.

La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) plays an important role in trying to unlock the ‘puzzle of autism’ through basic and applied research. It is also involved in training new scholars as well as in continuing education for health and education practitioners.

Mr Shorten, Centre, and Disability Reform Minister Jenny Macklin at La Trobe's Early Assessment Clinic for autism

Mr Shorten, Centre, and Disability Reform Minister Jenny Macklin at La Trobe’s Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre

The Centre now has 15 staff, more than 25 post-graduate research students and there are laboratories for observational and experimental studies of children.

These studies range from identifying the first signs of autism in infancy to investigating biological markers of autism.

OTARC also collaborates with community services, other research centres and international research groups.

First Early Assessment Clinic for ASD

In 2011, OTARC opened the first Early Assessment Clinic for ASDs in Australia, with a focus on children under three years of age to facilitate earlier diagnoses. Funded by the R E Ross Trust, the William Buckland Foundation and the Phyllis Connor Trust, families are able to access this service on a largely subsidised fee.

La Trobe is also the first Victorian service provider under the Federal Government’s national Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre program, offering care and early intervention for children with autism as part of a regular child care facility.

The service is located in the Margot Prior Wing – named after leading developmental psychologist and former La Trobe Professor, Margot Prior AO – at the University’s Community Children’s Centre on the Melbourne campus.

It was established with $4 million grant in partnership with the Royal Children’s Hospital and provides 20 full-time places for children with Autism. Also used for research, professional development of clinicians and as a community resource for children with autism and their families , the facility, began operation in 2010. – Ernest Raetz

More details about the CRC for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders and a list of other core partners