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Welcome to the

Spectrum for Life Lab

Hello and Welcome. I am Dr. T A McDonald, the principal investigator of the Spectrum for Life (S4L) Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I am also a research investigator with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and a member affiliate of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation.

S4L Mission

The S4L Lab’s mission is focused on supporting Autistic Excellence for Autists through several different areas of research. S4L is investigating how the huge combination of strengths and co-occurring conditions make up multiple autism(s). We are investigating the different ways that autism(s) present in adulthood. We are also investigating how different factors (financial, social, health, sensory, etc) help or prevent autistic excellence.

About the S4L Lab

S4L is a collaborative research lab that partners with other researchers interested in autism(s). The S4L Lab embraces the neurodiversity paradigm with a strong belief that all people have valuable traits and characteristics. Research in the S4L Lab strives to include Autists with all aspects of the research process including identifying the research questions and research design, assisting the recruitment, data analysis, and dissemination, and providing consultation for on-going research.

Types of Research Conducted Through Spectrum for Life

Survey Studies

Survey Studies help us better understand the characteristics, experiences, perceptions, and beliefs of Autists. Research in the S4L Lab is specifically focused on better understanding individual differences, or subgroups, within autism(s). Identifying ways that Autists are different from, or similar to, each other can help us design better services, programs, and therapies that can be tailored to individual needs.

Validating Measures

While many validated measures exist in the general population, few measures have been validated with Autists. Validated measures are required to measure change, such as improvements that are due to use of a service, program, or intervention.

Developing Measures

Not all measures are suitable for use with Autists. For example, measures of social satisfaction might not account for the variety of ways that Autists prefer to structure their social lives. A measure of social relationships that views marriage and multiple friendships as an ideal might not be a good match for social outcomes for many Autists. Some people may actually prefer to be alone, while others might desire only platonic friendships. Measures for Autists need to be able to account for differences in what Autists value.

Autism Identity

Autists vary in how they view autism. Some individuals embrace autistic differences while other individuals strive for normalcy. Still others want to develop, or protect, some aspects associated with autism(s) and work to minimize other aspects. Autism identity may be shaped by a person’s characteristics and experiences. Autism identity may affect other types of outcomes such as health, wellbeing, and employment.

Adapting Evidence-Based Interventions

Effective interventions exist for a range of concerns for the general population. However many interventions need to be adapted to better serve Autists who may face barriers accessing these interventions. These barriers can be social or communicative, but they can also be due to challenges in transportation and other access concerns. Additionally, Autists vary greatly in terms of how they best learn information or find motivation for change. Adapting evidenced-based-interventions provides Autists with options that are tailored more closely with their individual needs. Two examples of interventions that need adapting are described below:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-Insomnia (CBT-i): CBT-i is an effective intervention for insomnia in the general population. However, CBT-i needs to be adapted to help clinicians better support Autistic Adults.

Self-Determination: Self-determination programs help individuals plan and make decisions for their lives. While several self-determination programs exist, these have mainly focused on school-aged students or individuals with intellectual disabilities. Often, the programs are topic specific (education, employment, or independence). Self-determination programs need to be able to support Autists with a wide range of characteristics, skills, and goals.


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