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, research investigator with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, and a member affiliate of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation. I am currently a research scientist and professional counselor. To learn more about my education and training experiences, please visit www.tamcdonald.org.
Bio Background: I am a multiracial, multiply-neurodivergent (autism; production dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysphasia; etc) and disabled (e.g., Ehlers Danlos, autoimmune, etc), queer, first-generation college graduate/academic from a multiplex family (multiple autistic family members). Both of my parents are multiracial and disabled and my mother was an undocumented immigrant. I experienced poverty (personal and intergenerational), housing and education insecurity, trauma, and other ACES in childhood. I exited the K-12 education system before completing 9th grade, and experienced homelessness for several years before and after attaining my GED at age 20. I raised my multiply disabled son as a single parent. These direct experiences inform my research. More about my bio and path toward becoming a PhD, researcher, and therapist can be found here: https://www.cccco.edu/About-Us/News-and-Media/California-Community-Colleges-Outlook-Newsletter/citrus-college-autism-researcher
The S4L Lab’s mission is focused on supporting Autistic Flourishing 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 flourishing.
About the S4L Lab
S4L is a collaborative research lab that partners with other researchers and students 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 with recruitment, data analysis, and dissemination, and providing consultation for on-going research.
Types of Research Conducted Through Spectrum for Life
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.
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.
Unifying Theory of Autism
Broader Autism Phenotype Constellations-Disability Matrix Paradigm (BAPCO-DMAP). Autism research largely ignores the presence of autistic strengths. However, autistic strengths can impact the timing of social and communication skills development while, simultaneously, altering (e.g., boosting) the timing of other socially-valued skills. Autistic people may have isolated autistic strengths in focused attention, increased semantic memory, object orientation, systemizing, nonconformity, and sensory perceptual differences, or they may have combinations of these traits. The intensity and/or combination of the traits can interact with co-occurring conditions and environmental circumstances to further impact development of social and communication skills as well as autistic strengths and other traits. This theory has implications for neurodiversity-affirming early childhood development as well support across the lifespan. Check out the Media tab for more information. Click here for peer-reviewed publication: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33412500/
Framework for Evaluating Autism Theories (FEAT). Autism is highly heritable. However, the specific mechanisms that underlie autistic phenotypes (traits), heterogeneity (variation), or prevalence increases are not well understood. While multiple theories exist, these theories vary in their explanatory power to account for autistic phenomena. We developed a framework to evaluate theories in the following domains: traits associated with diagnostic criteria/challenges and autistic strengths; heterogeneity in autism; mechanism overlap in non-autistic populations; and co-occurring conditions (health and wellbeing).
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.
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. Click here for access to peer-reviewed publications: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28685412/ , https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34485832/
Adapting and Developing Evidence-Based Interventions
Effective interventions exist for a range of concerns for the general population. However many interventions need to be developed or 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:
Self-Determination: Self-determination programs help individuals plan and make ecisions 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). Neurodiverisity-affirming self-determination programs need to be able to support Autists with a wide range of characteristics, skills, and goals. See publications tab to download a toolkit. Click here for access to peer-reviewed publication: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35618972/
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.
Systematic and Scoping Reviews
While much of autism research historically focuses on childhood, much less research investigates topic important for autism in adulthood. Systematic and scoping reviews organize and describe research on specific topics while highlighting gaps and issues within the literature. Our work covers interventions for autistic adolescents (), bully victimization, and controversies regarding applied behavioral analysis (ABA).
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