Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research experts will host a one-day seminar March 4 in Falls Church, Virginia, for scientists, professionals, educators, students, and health-care providers in the field of autism, and individuals with autism and/or their family members to learn about new insights in the disorder that affects more than 3 million Americans.

This marks the second time that Virginia Tech has hosted a public seminar in the National Capital Region focusing on novel autism research and other information about its autism center. The first seminar was held in 2014, the same year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released startling new data on the growing prevalence of autism: That one in 68 children has some form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 123 percent increase during the last decade. This year’s seminar will be held at the Falls Church Fairview Marriott from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Attendance for the event is free. Breakfast and lunch will be served. 

“Anyone who is interested in research related to ASD would benefit from this symposium,” said Angela Scarpa, an associate professor with the Virginia Tech Department of Psychology, part of the College of Science. “There will be some higher level discussion for those who are experienced in research but also clear implications and a take-away message for those who may have less experience with research.”

Scarpa is spearheading the seminar and heads the Center for Autism Research, based in Blacksburg. A licensed child clinical psychologist, Scarpa became interested in autism research when her now-teenaged son was diagnosed with ASD as a toddler. “I understand first-hand the effects of autism in my son and in our family, and it has become my personal passion to help others going through this journey,” she said.

Scarpa’s talk will focus on developmental factors that may promote college success in young adults with autism, an increasingly recognized population. 

Virginia Tech researchers will provide additional insight into new research involving autism.

Speakers include Julee Farley, research coordinator, John Richey, assistant professor, and Jillian Shillaber, assessment coordinator, all with the Department of Psychology; Luke Achenie, professor of chemical engineering, and Denis Gracanin, associate professor of the Department of Computer Science, both with the Virginia Tech College of Engineering; and Amy Azano, assistant professor with the School of Education, Carolyn Shivers, assistant professor of human development, and Anisa Zvonkovic, head of the Department on Human Development, all with the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Discussion topics include not-yet-identified neural “subtypes” of ASD, new breakthroughs in drug discovery for ASD symptoms, unfulfilled educational needs of ASD students in rural communities, and siblings of autistic youth. The symposium also will detail the center’s outreach through state-of-the-art diagnostic evaluations and a research registry, as well as Virginia Tech’s efforts to expand undergraduate training through its new disabilities studies minor.

“Our center’s larger mission is to ‘merge science with service,’ so we ultimately want to increase awareness of the work we do and how it may improve the lives of those affected by autism,” said Scarpa.

Keynote speakers will be Dave Hamrick and Lindsey Nebeker, a married couple from Alexandria, Virginia, both diagnosed with ASD and featured in the 2015 documentary Autism in Love. Hamrick works with the National Weather Service. Nebeker is a development specialist with the Autism Society of America. They will discuss how ASD affected their relationship and their transition to independent young adults. 

Sponsoring the event is Jerry Hulick, a senior planner with The Washington Group Special Care Planning Team, and a 1973 political science alumnus of Virginia Tech. He also sponsored the debut research seminar, held in fall 2014.

“My day-to-day work is helping families through the myriad of financial issues that impact their daily lives,” said Hulick, adding that he regularly works with the special needs community. “The work of the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research is that of a service provider, but it is also a center of research and collaborative work in autism. The research and study of the center offers families, researchers and all providers hope for opportunities and possibilities now and in the future. It’s all about furthering opportunities and possibilities for those with autism.”
Hulick sponsors the symposium to raise Virginia Tech’s name in the field of autism research. “The university should be seen as a leader and innovator of possibilities, recognized far and beyond our university. The symposiums will promote collaborations beyond Blacksburg, and open doors for further understanding of autism, and bringing about opportunities not yet imagined.”

Those interested in attending the event should RSVP by Feb. 26 by calling (703) 865-6502 or by email. Attendees impacted or with a family member impacted by ASD may request information regarding special needs, physical, visual, and/or hearing impairment, by emailing the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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