Students study autism success stories

Researchers from the University of Calgary, University of Manitoba and University of Saskatchewan are looking to shed some light on the often-misunderstood world of autism.

The group of professors and students from the division of applied psychology are conducting a study that focuses on 100 youth aged 17-21 diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s syndrome. The study is designed to look at the under-studied adolescent demographic and assess the positive aspects of these points in the autism spectrum.

“What we’re primarily interested in is promoting resiliency and successful life transitions in this population,” said Danielle Dyke, a doctoral-level graduate student and co-investigator in the study. “[These kids] have unique social and emotional abilities as opposed to social and emotional deficits.”

Dyke added there is existing literature regarding the link between resiliency and the social-emotional functioning of typical young adults, but there has been little study of higher-functioning autistic teenagers.

“They are a population that falls through the cracks,” Dyke said. “[This group] often isn’t supported in the community because they lack that severity in their cognitive challenges. We need to know more about them through this research and then we can advocate and lobby for better funding and support services.”

The testing consists of several pencil and paper activities, computer tasks and games, as well as questionnaires for the parents and guardians of the subjects.

“The tests can actually be quite fun for the subjects,” said Dyke.

The causes of autism and Asperger’s syndrome are still largely unknown, and whether there is a distinction between the two is a much-debated topic in the medical community.

“There have been a lot of studies that try to distinguish between the two, but no one has come to any conclusive evidence,” explained Keoma Thorne, another project co-investigator. “That’s why we’re looking at different aspects. Taking the resiliency approach, they might differ depending on how resilient they are.”

With the results of the study, the team hopes to dispel some of the stereotypes in mainstream media and pop culture.

“With things like the savant skills, it’s only in [approximately] 10 per cent of the autistic population,” said Thorne. Savant skills refer to extraordinary mental abilities such as heightened artistic ability, high-functioning memory or mathematical skills.

“It’s really insignificant but people seem to latch onto that,” said Thorne.

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