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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 optimizing outcomes for individuals on the autism spectrum through several different areas of research.

About the S4L Lab

S4L is a collaborative research lab that partners with other researchers interested in the autism spectrum. 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 individuals on the autism spectrum 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 individuals on the autism spectrum. Research in the S4L Lab is specifically focused on better understanding individual differences, or subgroups, within the autism spectrum. Identifying ways that individuals on the autism spectrum 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 individuals on the autism spectrum. 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 the autism population. For example, measures of social satisfaction might not account for the variety of ways that individuals on the autism spectrum 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 people on the autism spectrum. Some people may actually prefer to be alone, while others might desire only platonic friendships. Measures for the autism spectrum need to be able to account for differences in what people on the autism spectrum value.

Autism Identity

People on the autism spectrum vary in how they view the autism spectrum. Some individuals embrace autistic differences while other individuals strive for normalcy. Still others want to develop, or protect, some aspects associated with the autism spectrum 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 individuals on the autism spectrum 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, individuals on the autism spectrum vary greatly in terms of how they best learn information or find motivation for change. Adapting evidenced-based-interventions provides individuals on the autism spectrum 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 adults on the autism spectrum.

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 adults on the autism spectrum with a wide range of characteristics, skills, and goals.


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