Improving the lives of children with autism: Q&A with Megan Clark

Improving the lives of children with autism: Q&A with Megan Clark

Can early diagnosis of autism lead to better outcomes?

Megan Clark is a PhD candidate at La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, Australia’s first centre dedicated to research Autism Spectrum Disorder to improve the lives of children with autism and their families. We spoke with Megan about working on OTARCs ground-breaking work.

La Trobe’s Dr Josephine Barbaro has developed the ASDetect app, which helps parents detect early signs of autism in young children. What was the motivation for equipping parents with this tool?

The app was devised as a way of providing a service for parents to check whether their child is demonstrating any of the behaviours consistent with autism.

Parents can watch examples of a child with autism at 18 months and 24 months presenting a given behaviour – such as eye contact, pointing, gesture and responds to name. This is also accompanied by footage of typically developing children, so parents can make the comparison.

The purpose of the app is for parents to have the opportunity to look at these behaviours in the privacy of their own home. If children come up as ‘at risk’ on the basis of parent responses, then are contacted and directed to see a health care professional for further follow-up and assessment.

We know it’s possible to reliably diagnose autism at 24 months of age, however, the age of diagnosis within Australia remains a lot higher than that – on average between four and six years. Currently in Australia, only 3% of children are detected at this early age. Ultimately we want to find ways to reduce the age of diagnosis so children can access intervention treatment in a timelier manner.

Can you tell us about your PhD research and how it’s connected with Dr Josephine’s?

I’m following up with the children first detected as part of Josie’s PhD. As part of her PhD, Josie assessed the children at 24 months, they were then followed up at pre-school aged 48 months, now I’ve come in at the third time point. They’re now aged between seven and nine years. We’re looking at how their development has changed and progressed across time and how they’re adjustment to the school environment.

What we’ve found is that there was a high incidence of developmental delay at the first time point, when they were first seen by Josie at 24 months. Now at school age, I’ve seen that the incidents of developmental delay has reduced from 68 per cent at 24 months to only 8 per cent at school age.

Instead, more than 80 per cent of children have tested with an IQ above 100 and are doing exceptionally well. This is a really encouraging finding.

A second project in my PhD is to look the impact of age of diagnosis by comparing the outcomes of children diagnosed early (as part of the Social Attention and Communication Study project) to those diagnosed later, after three years of age. We’ve seen that children diagnosed earlier are doing better in their cognition and expressive language and are demonstrating less severe autism symptomatology in comparison to children who were picked up later, this provides further evidence for the importance of detecting at the earliest possible age.

What was your journey to PhD like – what did you study?

I previously studied psychology and psychophysiology. I was volunteering as a group support assistant at a place in my local community, which involved delivering goal-based therapy to children with autism. That was the point when I really knew this was the area I wanted to specialise in.

In psychology, there are so many different areas and age groups and areas to focus on. With the growing prevalence of autism and my experience volunteering, this was an area I became very interested in.

Coming to OTARC was really fabulous because this is the first centre in Australia that’s dedicated to autism research, so it’s a really good fit.

What do you hope to get out of your PhD?

I hope to continue on in this field for a long time. I would like to begin a post-doctoral fellowship soon after my PhD. I’m also really keen on a lectureship, I enjoy teaching and sharing knowledge and experience with other students interested in this area.

Down the track I would like to get into private practice and some more intervention-based work, but at this stage its’ really the research I’m finding interesting and enjoying so that’s where I want to stay for a while.

Learn more about how our researchers are helping those with autism thrive.