WMU News

Autism is topic of Van Riper lecture series

Oct. 1, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Three internationally known authorities on the often misunderstood disorder of autism will visit the area Thursday and Friday, Oct. 19-20, to take part in the 18th Annual Van Riper Lectures in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Western Michigan University.

This year's lecture series will explore "Communication Challenges in Autism" and will feature Dr. Amy Wetherby, professor and former chairperson of the Department of Communication Disorders at Florida State University; Dr. Lynne E. Hewitt, assistant professor of communication disorders at Bowling Green State University; and Dr. Luke Y. Tsai, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Wetherby has more than 20 years of clinical experience in the design and implementation of communication programs for children with autism, while Hewitt has written numerous papers and chapters dealing with assessment and intervention practices for children with autism and language disorders. Tsai is director of the Developmental Disorders Clinic at the U of M Medical Center, is consultant editor of "Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders" and editorial board member of "Focus on Autistic Behavior."

The deadline for pre-registration has been extended to Oct. 13. Regular registration is $125, while parents of an autistic child may register for a special rate of $100. Student registration is $50 and registration at the door is $150. All lectures are in the Kirsch Auditorium of the Fetzer Center.

The two-day series is filled with the latest information on autism and will be of great interest to parents, teachers and other professionals, with lectures focusing on theoretical, assessment and intervention concepts related to autism spectrum disorders. The series is designed to provide new insights for speech-language pathologists, audiologists, faculty, students and other professionals interested in autism.

Autism is receiving more attention today in part because a growing number of children are being diagnosed with the disorder, says event coordinator Dr. Nickola Nelson, interim associate dean in the WMU College of Health and Human Services and professor of speech pathology and audiology.

Another reason for the growing interest in the disorder is because autism's effects are so far-reaching, Nelson says.

"When a person has autism it has some really significant implications on how they will develop cognitively and communicatively in their thinking and talking," she says. "So parents who are struggling to give their children the best chance need to have some help in knowing what to do."

Nelson says it's very difficult to know what's best for an autistic child because there are many conflicting opinions. The lecture series will try to clear up some of the confusion for both parents and professionals alike.

"I think this conference will present a balanced picture of the different methods and approaches at the same time, trying to put everything in a framework that talks about families and school demands and how children interact with each other," Nelson says.

One session, led by Wetherby and Hewitt, will examine empirically supported practices for communication enhancement in autistic children. Topics during the session, starting at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, will include the importance of early intervention and principles of recommended practice in working with autistic children.

"Amy Wetherby is on a national panel to examine the research on the varied approaches people can take for intervention," Nelson says. "Both she and Dr. Hewitt will try to help the audience understand what this research has to say and what works."

Another highlight will be sessions led by Tsai starting at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. Tsai will offer an update on neurobiological research findings and autism and treatment implications, then will explore music and recreational training during a session titled "Life Beyond Autism" that will feature Tsai's family. That session will include a videotape and live performance by Tsai's son, Stephen, as well as a question and answer period with Tsai's wife, Merling.

"His son has autism, but Dr. Tsai is also very well respected and has written a lot on the topic from a medical perspective," Nelson says.

Much of the event's focus will be on communication, early identification and intervention, Nelson says. Hewitt will lead sessions dealing with the life-span impact of autism and how various theories of intervention have dealt with pragmatic issues starting at 12:30 p.m. on Friday. Parents also will share their experiences during a panel discussion at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

"It's important to find children early," Nelson says, "because we know that the earlier you work with children, the better the outcome is."

The Van Riper Lectures are named in honor of the late Dr. Charles G. Van Riper, who was instrumental in establishing WMU's Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, which sponsors the annual event.

For more information, contact Paula Armstrong in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at (616) 387-8045, fax (616) 387-8044, or e-mail <paula.armstrong@wmich.edu>.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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