A newsmaker you should know: Speech pathologist finds her drive in autism research

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As a speech pathologist, Diane Williams of McCandless would often treat children with learning disabilities who also had language development issues.

After more than 20 years in practice, she realized she wanted to learn a better way to assist those children, so she returned to college, completed her degree in 1999 and earned her Ph.D.

But even after completing her Ph.D., she wanted to learn more. "Once I started learning about autism and how individuals with autism learn differently, I decided to do post-doctoral work with Nancy Minschew," she said.

Ms. Minschew at the University of Pittsburgh is well-known for her research in autism, according to Ms. Williams.

After two and a half years of study with Ms. Minschew, it still wasn't enough. So even though Ms. Williams finished her post-doctoral research in 2004, she decided to continue her research.

Now, after nearly a decade of research, Ms. Williams is still going strong and collaborated on a study that was recently published in the journal Brain.

Ms. Williams collaborates with other researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh in studying individuals with autism versus those with normal development by using Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

"We look at the brain while the subject is completing a task or answering questions, then compare them," she said.

Based on their research, Ms. Williams and her fellow researchers have determined that while individuals with autism may be able to complete the same tasks as those with normal development, they use more cognitive resources to do it.

"That basically means they have to work a lot harder," she said.

And that makes sense to what parents of autistic children have often told doctors and teachers -- that their children are exhausted at the end of a school day.

"It also helps to explain why they may have emotional melt-downs when you understand how hard they have worked and how tired they are," she said about behavior often common to individuals with autism.

Ms. Williams and her colleagues have determined a wealth of information about those with autism, and as a speech pathologist she wants to use this information to assist other clinicians in working with their patients.

She also used the information to write the book, "Developmental Language Disorders: Learning, Language and the Brain," (Plural Publishing: 2008), a book that is used as a textbook and as a guide for speech pathologists.

In addition to her research, Ms. Williams also teaches graduate classes in speech pathology at Duquesne University and serves as director of the Child Language Clinic, also at Duquesne.

While most of the research is used by fellow speech therapists, Ms. Williams hopes that the public also will learn from their efforts.

"We want people to know more about autism and understand that individuals with autism are different, they can still learn," she said, "We want people to know more and therefore, be more accepting of those with autism."

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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