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Expanding the Reach of Autism Spectrum Disorder Research

May 5, 2017

Dr. Sheri Stronach says her interest in early autism was sparked when she joined a research project at the Waisman Center, a research and clinical institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge about human development, developmental disabilities, and neurodegenerative diseases, in Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Stronach was working clinically with adults after having earned her undergraduate and master's degrees in communication disorders at the University of Wisconsin. Leaving snowy Wisconsin for sunny Florida State University, Stronach received her PhD under the guidance of Dr. Amy Wetherby, a leader in the field of early detection of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intervention for children with ASD.

Now, Dr. Stronach is conducting her own research and working as an assistant professor here at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Stronach describes her research interests as falling under three main categories: community-based early autism identification and intervention, intervention technology, and cross-cultural social communication development. Her overall goal is to help professionals and caregivers identify ASD as early as possible in children and get them the intervention that they need. The earlier the intervention starts, the better the long term outcomes are for the individual.

Dr. Stronach’s current projects include collaborating on a grant received by the Minnesota Department of Education to train professionals in early autism detection and intervention. Stronach takes the research from leading institutions such as the University of Minnesota and shares it with communities so that as many people as possible can benefit from it. “Research often happens in the ‘ivory tower’ and benefits the people that have the ability to go out of their way to get to it, but I want to change that,” says Stronach. “I want the benefits of research to reach all communities.” She is working to train speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, teachers, and parents to be able to recognize ASD and to implement intervention strategies--giving them the knowledge necessary to help in the best way possible, as soon as possible.

It’s this same drive that inspires Stronach’s work with technological intervention and cultural and social development. The use of technology, such as iPads and mobile coaching, expands the reach of ASD intervention. Many families that live in rural areas do not have the ability to commute regularly for intervention. Technological advancements that facilitate intervention, either through direct activities for the child to perform or by coaching and supporting the parents in their intervention tactics, expands the reach of the research being done here at the U and other institutions.

Another way Stronach is expanding the reach of research is through her “Culture and Early Social Communication Lab” research lab. Stronach explains that many cultures have different markers of social communication, such as eye contact, gestures, facial expression, etc. Social communication is very important in ASD identification because the social aspects of language are one of the most severely affected areas in this population. These cues act as an indicator that there may be an underlying cause, such as ASD, when a child’s early social communication is delayed. When a child comes from a different cultural background with different “norms” for social communication, it is harder to identify delays and therefore identification and intervention for ASD is also delayed. Stronach is currently conducting a study that measures how social communication differs across cultures so that professionals working with children from these cultures can better identify when there is a disorder rather than just a difference.

Ultimately, Stronach’s work is efficiently improving the lives of those with ASD. Sheri Stronach is expanding the scope of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences intervention and research not only across disciplines but also across geographic and cultural boundaries. Through her work the benefits of research are being made available to the communities that need it most.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.