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Chapman University

Autism research is top-of-mind for this new think tank

Chapman University wants to change the conversation on autism.

The university recently launched a new think tank, the Thompson Policy Institute on Disability and Autism. It is charged with gathering data, conducting research and advocating for policy change on topics related to autism and other disabilities.

The Thompson Policy Institute was founded last fall through a $3 million gift from the William S. and Nancy E. Thompson Foundation. The goal of the institute is straightforward: to transform the way we understand disability and policy through research and surveys and to use those findings in working with community leaders, people with disabilities, and their families and legislators to influence policy.

"The institute's aim will be to inform policymakers and decision-makers on these topics and facilitate action in the community toward improving the quality of lives of children and adults with disabilities and their families," said Don Cardinal, the former dean of Chapman University's College of Educational Studies who now co-directs the institute with psychologist Amy Griffiths.

The Thompson Policy Institute will hold its inaugural Disability Summit on May 3. Among the topics: an institute report, "Understanding the Prevalence of Autism," that delves into the factors behind the huge jump in the diagnosis of people with autism spectrum disorder.

"It's an international phenomenon, and it's an issue that's on the mind of a lot of people," Cardinal said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in a recently updated study, one in 68 people lives with autism spectrum disorder, up from one in 150 in 2000. "The question of why the significant increase has captivated everyone," Cardinal said.

The answers are nuanced, he said, and include a change in how autism is diagnosed. For example, in people between 3 and 22 years old, cases that may have passed for learning disabilities in the past are now often determined to fall instead within the autism spectrum or even within attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Understanding what is causing the increase can help decision-makers develop policy.

A new institute study found the eligibility category for children in special education programs in California has shifted dramatically. In 2000, a majority of children enrolled in special education programs fell under the category of "specific learning disability" — defined as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes, which can include brain injury, dyslexia or minimal brain dysfunction. Just 2% of students enrolled in special education programs, on the other hand, were categorized as autistic.

Today, the percentage of students who fell under the specific learning disability category fell sharply while the number who were categorized as autistic rose by an equivalent number. ADHD increased substantially over this time period as well.

“The increase in autism in schools can be almost completely explained by the decrease in learning disabilities, Cardinal said. “If we properly align our policies and procedures to this new information, children will reap the rewards of a more specific and personalized education plan.” 

A study led by Griffiths, "Autism in the Workplace," will also be presented at the May 3 summit and focus on the needs of young adults with autism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, autistic adults are the most unemployed and underemployed group in America. A survey conducted by the Thompson Policy Institute found the biggest needs include finding a job that allows for financial independence, finding a work environment that is supportive of a person with a disability, and developing interviewing skills.

"Understanding what policies and programs need to be developed or changed to create better support for young and mature adults is an immediate need," Griffiths said. "We hear loud and clear that meaningful work for a real livable wage and providing the supports necessary to be successful when entering the workforce is critical."

—David Ogul, Tribune Content Solutions

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