Western student wins major international award for study with autistic children

Strengthening parents’ ability to communicate with their autistic children has not only greatly benefited a number of Ontario families but it’s also landed a Western University student a major international prize.

Mary Wang, a fourth-year Medical Sciences student, was recently named one of 25 Global Winners in the Undergraduate Awards (UA) competition, an academic awards program that celebrates the world’s brightest undergraduate students by recognizing their coursework and projects.

Wang earned a Gold Medal for her paper, “Does developmental social pragmatic intervention for children with autism influence parent language use?” in the Languages & Linguistics category. Wang will travel to Dublin and the UA Global Summit in November to receive her award.

Her research explores the potential benefits of parents and primary caregivers providing a key source of linguistic input early in the developmental process of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), specifically using the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative Treatment (MEHRIT). Based out of York University, MEHRIT is a program that teaches parents to support their child’s communication development.

Wang worked closely with Janis Oram Cardy, Director of the Autism Spectrum & Language Disorders Lab, part of Western’s School of Communication Sciences & Disorders in the Faculty of Health Sciences. Health and Rehabilitation Sciences PhD student Amanda Binns also played a key role in investigating whether MEHRIT training was associated with any changes in parent language use following treatment.

“I am extremely honoured to be selected as a gold medal winner. The news was a very happy surprise,” says Wang. “This project would not have been possible without Dr. Stuart Shanker, the founder and CEO of the MEHRIT program. I am extremely grateful for his support and encouragement, as well as my mentors at Western, especially Dr. Janis Oram Cardy and Amanda Binns.”

For her study, preschool-aged children with ASD and their parents participated in a randomized controlled trial where 25-minute parent-child interactions were videotaped pre-treatment and post-treatment, 12 months apart. Every time the parent spoke to their child, researchers assigned a code indicating each phrase’s function.

Wang wanted to know if this coaching was helping. Was it changing the way they were speaking to their children? What were they saying and how were they saying it? She found parents in the MEHRIT group outperformed the control group post-treatment in the use of skills taught through the program.

“The lab focuses on children with ASD, and they often have difficulty with social communication that we take for granted, such as looking each other in the eye or responding appropriately,” explains Wang. “As speech language pathologists, we provide speech therapy to these children, which is very beneficial, but the issue with this is you can only do it for one day a week, perhaps for an hour. There are a lot of kids and time restraints.

“Think of the therapy like dieting. If you only diet on a Saturday for an hour, you’re not going to be getting the results you want. One solution we have is to get the parents involved. They are with them every day so we want to give them the ability to help their child and they are motivated to do that.”

Wang added the results of this study offer support for parent-implemented therapies, suggesting parents have the potential to apply strategies obtained from coaching in helping their children. She hopes to expand the study with a larger group of parents and children and would also like to look at what kind of changes the parents are going through and if it can then predict the child’s language changes.

Earlier this summer, UA recognized 33 papers by 29 Western students as Highly Commended Entrants. The students were selected from an entrant pool of more than 5,000 submissions from undergraduates studying at more than 250 universities across 39 countries. Papers are recognized as Highly Commended if they finish in the top 10 per cent of their subject category.

Western had five Regional Winners, meaning these students had the highest ranking submissions in the United States and Canada. Those winners, including Wang, were:

Rebecca Meharchand, “A Western Concept of Honour: Understanding Cultural Differences, Realizing Patriarchal Similarities,” Social Sciences: Anthropology & Cultural Studies category;
Naciza Masikini, “Transwomen and the Prison Industrial Complex,” Social Sciences: Social Policy category;
Jethro Kwong, “Characterization of NLS-dependent interactions within the N-terminal domain of ALS-associated protein TDP-43,” Life Sciences category; and
Michelle Bunton, “1/1,” Visual Arts & Design category.

MEDIA CONTACT: Jeff Renaud, Senior Media Relations Officer, 519-661-2111, ext. 85165, jrenaud9@uwo.ca, @jeffrenaud99

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