When autism researcher and geneticist Pam Feliciano described the state of autism research to a full auditorium at Meredith College on Tuesday, February 2, 2016, her tone was optimistic.
“There is a lot of hope for the future. I think science can bring us better treatments – it’s just not sustainable not to. Everyone knows someone with autism – it’s not a rare disorder. The impact on society is great,” said Feliciano.
Feliciano, whose son was diagnosed with autism on July 27, 2007, traced her own journey from that day, which she called Diagnosis Day, to her present role as senior scientist at the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.
When she first heard her son’s diagnosis, Feliciano understandably had many questions – to which there were few answers. She has spent much of her career pursuing those answers.
Because of her background, she’s focused particularly on identifying genetic factors behind the disorder. Autism has both a strong genetic component as well as environmental risk factors. The Simons Foundation is seeking to both understand what causes autism and develop more effective treatments.
In addition to her lecture, Feliciano also interacted with students in smaller, more intimate settings. While on campus, she visited the life span developmental psychology class of psychology major Olivia McElvaney, ’18, whose older sister has autism.
“She helped me understand why my sister is the way she is,” said McElvaney. “When we have specialists come to class like Dr. Feliciano, it sparks ideas among students for research and conversation.”
Biology and psychology major KayLynn Newton,’16, had lunch with Feliciano earlier in the day and previously had given her a tour of the Meredith Autism Program, where Newton has worked for six semesters. Newton, who plans to go to graduate school to further study applied behavior analysis (ABA), was impressed by Feliciano’s accessibility.
“She has a big job, but she’s so humble and approachable. When I told her I’m interested in international ABA programs, she connected me with a colleague who could provide a global perspective,” said Newton.
Feliciano closed her lecture by describing a research initiative at the Simons Foundation called SPARK, a project to collect genetic samples from 50,000 families for scientists to analyze. When asked how being a parent of a child with autism has affected her work, she replied that her son energizes her efforts.
“It provides a really strong motivation every day and gives me a deep sense of satisfaction – I love going to work.”
This event was funded by the Kenan Foundation and the Psychology Endowment, and was sponsored by Biological Sciences, Psychology and Social Work, Public Health, Education, and the Meredith Autism Program.