Autism activities at the Waisman Center

April is Autism Awareness Month, shedding light on a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior in one out of every 68 children. The Waisman Center is committed to solving the autism puzzle and providing high-quality services to children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families. We’re home to a wide range of programs related to autism, both research and clinical, with a goal to better understand the biological underpinnings of this disorder and provide resources and services to those who are affected.

To increase awareness and knowledge about autism, the Waisman Center hosts an annual community outreach event, Day with the Experts: Autism. Attendees learn about the latest advances in research and clinical services from Waisman Center scientists and clinicians and hear from a panel of experts that consists of individuals with autism and family members. The next Day with the Experts: Autism is scheduled for January 23, 2016.

The Waisman Center is uniquely positioned to make major advances in the understanding of autism because of its multidisciplinary approach and ability to conduct research, training, service, and outreach programs under one roof. The scope of our autism-related activities continues to expand as we actively pursue the causes, consequences, and treatments of this complex disorder.

Current Research

Wisconsin Surveillance of Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities
In collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Maureen Durkin, PhD, DrPH, leads an investigation into the prevalence and health needs of Wisconsin children with autism and other developmental disabilities. The program is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A goal of the program is to increase the ability of health care providers to detect autism and other developmental disabilities as early as possible to be accomplished through a series of training programs targeted at physicians, nurses, psychologists, and other allied health personnel.

Adolescents and Adults with Autism (AAA)
Marsha R. Mailick, PhD, and Jan Greenberg, PhD, are breaking new ground in our understanding of how autism affects the lives of adolescents and adults and their families. This research is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. By following a group of 406 individuals with autism and their families over a 14-year period, this project helps to answer the following questions:
– How do autism symptoms change throughout adolescence and adulthood?
– How do parents cope with the unique challenges of caring for a son or daughter with autism?
– How are siblings affected?
– How do treatment and service needs of people with autism change throughout the lifespan?
Some of the recent findings from this investigation are as follows:
– Mothers of adolescents and adults with autism have significantly elevated stress as compared to their age peers without a son or daughter with a disability; experience twice as many days on which they are fatigued and have to cut back on work; and have low cortisol levels in response to chronic stress.
– Young adults with ASD are at risk for increased symptoms and behavior problems after they leave high school, in particular those who do not have intellectual disability and those who are from lower income families.
– Participating in post-secondary education or in stimulating and structured employment helps to improve the functioning of adults on the spectrum by reducing behavior problems and autism symptoms and improving daily living skills.

Quality of Life
Supported by a grant from Autism Speaks, Mailick and Greenberg, in collaboration with Leann Smith, PhD, and Christopher Coe, PhD, study the quality of life of adults with ASD in early adulthood and midlife. This research will reconceptualize quality of life for this population, investigate how trajectories of autism symptoms, behavior problems, functional abilities, and health predict quality of life, and explores how aging biomarkers are related to quality of life outcomes. The results of this study have the potential to inform the design of interventions, treatments, and services aimed to enrich the lives of individuals with ASD and their families over the life course.

Family Outcomes in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Sigan Hartley, PhD, investigates the dynamics of families of children with ASD. The goal of this study is to examine the within-family associations between child functioning, parent experiences, and marital adjustment as these processes unfold in naturalistic contexts and across five years. Hartley hopes to understand the role of marital quality in dealing with child-related challenges and why some couples are able to successfully adapt to the unique challenges of having a son or daughter with ASD, and may even grow closer, whereas other couples are not. Findings from the study will be used to identify potential avenues for improving the well-being of children with ASD and their parents.

Transitioning Together
Leann Smith, PhD, conducts a randomized clinical trial to test the effectiveness of Transitioning Together, an adolescent and family intervention aimed at reducing stress and improving coping strategies during the transition to adulthood. Transitioning Together involves weekly education and support group sessions for parents that cover topics such as transition planning, problem solving, and legal issues. Adolescent group meetings run concurrently and include a variety of social and learning activities to foster social skills development. Smith’s project is funded by Autism Speaks and is a collaboration with Mailick and Greenberg, incorporating the results from their 14-year longitudinal study of the families of adolescents and adults with ASD.

Center for Secondary Education for Students with ASD (CSESA)
Smith is also co-principal investigator of a multi-university research program, Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (CSESA). The center aims to develop new programs and services for high school students with ASD to assess the effectiveness of these school- and community-based educational programs and interventions. The work at the UW-Madison project site, led by Smith and Mailick, is centered on the areas of transition of high school into the adult world. Specifically, the research team at the Waisman Center partners with Wisconsin high schools to develop and evaluate instructional strategies and methods to prepare students for the transition out of high school, with a special focus on providing education and support to families and incorporating student and family perspectives into the transition planning process. The goal of this project is to optimize educational, vocational, and social outcomes for students with ASD following high school exit.

Working Together
Smith, Mailick, Greenberg, and Janet Lainhart, MD, received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop and evaluate a psychoeducation intervention program, Working Together, for young adults with ASD and their families. The overall goal of the program is to provide education and support to young adults to increase their engagement in school or work.

Speech, Communication and Language
Lawrence D. Shriberg, PhD, in collaboration with investigators at the Yale Child Study Center and the Center on Human Development and Disability, University of Washington, researches the unique ways people with ASD process speech and talk. These projects are funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. Findings indicate that in comparison to the general population, samples of children with verbal ASD have moderately higher prevalence rates of two subtypes of speech sound disorders, characterized primarily by differences in certain speech sound distortions and pitch and stress differences. Findings also support the hypothesis of Childhood Apraxia of Speech, a rare motor speech disorder, in some children with verbal ASD and 16p11.2 microdeletions. Findings have implications for individualizing speech-language treatment for children and adults with ASD.

Examining language development in children, including individuals with autism, is the primary focus of research by Susan Ellis Weismer, PhD, director of the Language Processes Lab, which has three active research projects related to autism: the Language and Attention Project, the Toddler Language Comprehension Project, and LINGO. For the Language and Attention Project–conducted in collaboration with Margarita Kaushanskaya, PhD–Ellis Weismer is currently recruiting 8- to 11-year-old children who have an ASD (autism, PDD-NOS, Asperger’s). This work will provide insight into the relationship between executive function (i.e., higher-level cognitive abilities that control and regulate behavior) and language skills in children with a variety of language abilities. Ellis Weismer is also recruiting children 24 to 35 months of age who have an ASD diagnosis, or are suspected of being on the autism spectrum, for the Toddler Language Comprehension.

Studies in the Waisman Center’s Research in Developmental Disorders Language Lab (RIDDL) directed by Audra Sterling, PhD, focus on the language and cognitive development in children and adolescents with fragile X syndrome, autism, and Down syndrome. Approximately 25 to 45 percent of males with fragile X also have a co-diagnosis of autism. One current study aims to describe the language profile of children with fragile X and children with autism, as well as understand the impact of autism on fragile X. Very little is known about assessment and intervention for language development in fragile X, and the results of this study have important clinical implications for designing and implementing the most effective treatments.

Imaging Studies of Brain Development
Waisman investigators Andrew Alexander, PhD, and Janet Lainhart, MD, develop quantitative brain imaging methods, including diffusion tensor imaging, functional MRI, structural morphometry, magnetization transfer, and T1 and T2 relaxometry, with applications to child development, child psychopathology, neurodegenerative diseases, and developmental disabilities, including autism. Alexander and his team developed methods using diffusion tensor imaging to map out the organization of white matter connections within the brain. Their imaging studies suggest that white matter and brain connectivity in autism are abnormal. Using both resting state functional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging, Alexander, Lainhart, and Nicholas Lange, ScD, documented differences in the functional and structural organization of the brain among people with autism, as well as the correlation between such differences and clinical and behavioral measures of autism. These investigators are currently conducting a longitudinal imaging study of brain development in autism and relating the age-related changes to clinical outcome measures and genetics. This research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Brittany Travers, PhD, examines motor development and corresponding brain development in individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Travers combines neuroimaging measures using MRI with behavioral measures of motor function and daily living skills. Her research suggests that individuals with autism struggle with motor difficulties which predict impairments in other domains.


Click here for a complete list of studies recruiting participants with autism spectrum disorder.


Waisman Center Clinics
The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic is an interdisciplinary clinic that provides diagnosis and clinical care for children with a developmental disability including ASD, intellectual disability, fragile X, and genetic disorders associated with developmental delay. The clinic offers specialized diagnostic and developmental assessment services to persons who have, or are suspected of having, a variety of development disorders, including autism.

Waisman Resource Center
The Waisman Resource Center provides free and confidential information and assistance to families and care providers of children with special health care needs. The Waisman Resource Center is staffed by professionals in the fields of social work and education, and with experience in a variety of disability-related areas.

Community Outreach for Children with Challenging Behaviors
Community Training, Intervention and Evaluations Services (TIES) is an outreach program for children and adults with developmental disabilities who present various challenging behaviors, including withdrawal, aggression, and self-injury. Community TIES addresses behavioral, psychological, and emotional needs using therapeutic approaches that insure continued participation in the community. TIES provides counseling, crisis response, psychiatric consultation, parent education and support, and training for personnel and program consultation in local human service agencies. Directed by Paul White, MA, and funded by Dane County, this program maintains an active caseload of approximately 250 children and adults in Dane County.

Waisman Early Childhood Program
The Waisman Early Childhood Program is a model inclusive preschool in which one-third of the enrollment is reserved for children with developmental disabilities. Since its inception in 1979, children with autism have been an integral part of the program.

Grandparents’ Network
The Grandparents’ Network provides a context for grandparents and other family members to increase their understanding of developmental disabilities, learn how other families cope with the challenge of disability, and contribute expertise, wisdom, and experience.