Tonawanda News

September 29, 2013

Canisius autism program awarded $3.4 million grant from government

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

BUFFALO — Eleven-year-old Richard Dodge, of Lockport, loves to play video games, he's on his way to earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and he's obsessed with reading to the point where his mother, Tammy Dodge, jokes that he already has a better vocabulary than she does.

Tammy describes him as a typical boy of his age, but also says he's "just quirky," somethings she loves about her son.

But it was also a sign there was something a little different with Richard. 

At 2 years old, the toddler still wasn't speaking, something Tammy said was decidedly unlike the rest of the very talkative Dodge clan.

But then "he went from not talking to the exact opposite where he never was quiet and he had a huge vocabulary," Tammy said. 

"Early on we knew something was different," she added, describing how instead of zooming his toy trucks around his room like most little boys would, he'd line them all up in a row.

At age 5, specialists and teachers told the Dodge family they thought Richard might have autism and by 8 years old, he was officially diagnosed with the disorder. Because he had high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, Tammy said she had difficulties finding treatment options and programs to help her son with some of his impaired social interactions and anxieties. 

That is, until she learned about the summer and after-school treatment programs offered at the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College in Buffalo.

Richard attended two of the institute's summer programs — one when he was 8 years old and another this past summer at age 11 — and one six-week course of the after-school program when he was 9. 

The programs, dubbed summerMAX and MAXout, served as preliminary studies for a new program, schoolMAX, the institute can now afford to roll out to Buffalo-area schools with the help of a $3.4 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education in August. It's the largest research grant the school has ever received.

“The IAR is a leading center for innovative research and treatment programs for children on the autism spectrum,” said Dr. Richard A. Wall, interim vice president for academic affairs. “The new funding will allow the Institute to significantly expand on this and, at the same time, further the applied learning experiences and academic programming opportunities already available to undergraduate and graduate students. Canisius is grateful to the IES for its tremendous support.”

The Institute for Autism Research has had a home at Canisius College since 2009, but the study has been led by Dr. Christopher Lopata and Dr. Marcus L. Thomeer — co-founders and co-directors of the institute — for 11 years.

The schoolMAX program is the third phase in what is ultimately planned to be a four-phase study. The institute previously received a $1.2 million grant for the three-year second phase in the program in which they developed and did a pilot test of the comprehensive school-based intervention program for children with high-function autism spectrum disorder.

Lopata explained that as part of the summer and after-school programs, the institute developed a program to explicitly teach children between the ages of 7 and 12 years old certain skills, for example, the importance of being a good sport when interacting with peers. The children are then expected to practice said skill during therapeutic activities, say, while playing a card game.

With the additional funding, the next step is for Lopata, Thomeer and their team of research assistants from Canisius College and the University at Buffalo to take what they've tested during the summerMAX and MAXout programs and translate it into a classroom setting — the clinical trial phase of the study.

"The summer program has been shown to be highly effective, which is great, but that's not where the kids spend most of their time," Lopata said. "They spend most of their time in school so if we can yield similiar outcomes in school then we'll have something that has the capacity to be distributed across the country and have a large impact."

Some 96 students between grades 1 and 5 will be studied as part of schoolMax at eight different Buffalo-area schools over the course of four years. While half the students in the study won't receive the schoolMAX treatment and will serve instead as a control for the research, they will be offered the chance to enroll in the summerMAX program free of charge the following summer.

The grant will help cover the costs of the programs, but will also cover the stipends and coursework for some 24 to 28 student research assistants at the institute each year, as well as the salaries of two post-doctoral research fellows, Lopata said.

"From our standpoint it really benefits a large number of people from the student level through the dissemination of research findings," Lopata said, adding that the study will put Canisius and its students ahead of the curve when it comes to the release of the study's findings.

"These type of grants are usually given to top research schools," Thomeer said. "For Canisius to get it puts us up there with the big boys."

Tammy Dodge said she's seen a drastic improvement in Richard's social skills since he first enrolled in the summerMAX program when he was 8 years old.

"One of the greatest things we've seen is him engaging in a conversation and not just a conversation wrapped around what he's interested in but what everyone else is interested in," she said. "It's so joyful to see him interested in something his sister's doing."

In addition to the lessons Richard learned during his three programs at Canisius — which Thomeer describes as having more of the atmosphere of a summer camp than something clinical — Tammy said she attended weekly meetings where she also learned ways to help Richard at home.

"It's wonderful to have those tools to deal with your kid who doesn't see things the way you do," she said. "It's been a wonderful thing for him."

For more information about the Institute for Autism Research and to find out how to involve your child in any of its programs, visit www.canisius.edu.iar, or call 888-2800.

Contact Sunday Lifestyle editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116 or follow her on Twitter at @DanielleHaynes1.