Alumni profile

Dr Josephine Barbaro

PhD in Behavioural Sciences, 2011
BBSc (Hons), 2006

Senior Research Fellow, OTARC

Dr Josephine Barbaro is an internationally-renowned researcher on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Dr Barbaro, a Senior Research Fellow at The Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) at La Trobe University, knows the importance of recognising the early signs of autism in young children. She’s dedicated her career to it and is considered an internationally-renowned authority on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Dr Barbaro's research interests are in the early identification and diagnosis of autism in infants and toddlers, and family health and well-being following a diagnosis.  

She has pioneered a breakthrough technique embraced across the world to detect and diagnose autism in babies as young as 12 months.

In 2006, Josephine received the prestigious Sir Robert Menzies Scholarship in Allied Health Sciences, and was awarded the best clinical dissertation for 2012 by the International Society for Autism Research. 

How would you describe the path you have taken to get you to where you are today?

Since deciding to enrol at La Trobe at the undergraduate level, I followed my interest in developmental psychology and child development, and everything just fell into place after that. I was able to complete my honours and PhD at La Trobe on ASD in young children, and have been fortunate enough to continue with my research on early ASD identification and diagnosis as a postdoc at La Trobe. I also helped establish and am the lead clinician in the Early Assessment Clinic at La Trobe, which specialises in the assessment of children three years of age and under for ASD, which was developed as a direct result of my PhD.

Do you have a personal philosophy that you bring to your work?

Even at a young age, I have always had a strong belief that if I put my mind to something wholeheartedly, I will achieve whatever it is that I set out to do. And so far, that belief has put me in good stead, and gives me the confidence I need at work when setting out to obtain, achieve, or develop something new.

What has been your greatest career highlight(s)?

Winning the International Society for Autism Research Award for best clinical dissertation was definitely a highlight and an incredible recognition of my work on the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS). Since then, having my research on the SACS disseminated across the world in South Korea, Japan, Bangladesh, Poland, and China has also been a tremendous highlight, with Tianjin incorporating the SACS into their seven year plan for early autism surveillance.

What is the most common misconception about people affected by ASD?

That they all have savant abilities or “special skills” like a photographic memory. Although it is true that some individuals on the spectrum possess savant skills, most individuals require intensive intervention in their early years of life, and support across the lifespan to equip them with the skills needed to function independently as adults. With early intervention, many children on the autism spectrum can and do develop to the best of their abilities, and many do develop incredible skills that contribute to the fabric and wonderful diversity of our society.

What has been your greatest career challenge? How did you navigate this challenge?

Engaging in large-scale community-based research can be incredibly difficult at times. Not only do you have to manage the day-to-day research activities that are required to keep the project moving forward, you have to establish strong relationships with workers in the community sector, the families and children that are part of your research, and the authorities involved with each of these groups. At times, this balance has seemed almost impossible, but reminding myself that I have overcome similar challenges in the past, and that I can do it again, certainly helps to keep me focused.

Do you have any sage advice for those starting out in their careers?

I think that the best advice I can give is to not be afraid to take on big challenges. Although overwhelming at first, if you can persist and focus on the outcomes at the end, the rewards are worth the effort.

Where to from here?

In addition to continuing to disseminate the SACS program both nationally and internationally, I am very much interested in raising the profile of the early signs of ASD so that both parents and professionals are aware of the signs, and to act immediately if they recognise the signs in a young child. We know that early identification and intervention can lead to significant improvements in the development of the young child with ASD. I am also interested in developing a program that can assist parents and families post-diagnosis, as this can be an incredibly stressful time.

Distinguished Science

Last updated: 29th May 2019