Funding research into Autism

Cheryl and OlgaWhen Mrs Tennison found out her grandson had Aspergers Syndrome—a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—at the age of 12, she was relieved. Most people usually react with grief but it gave her motivation to shine a light on the condition that effects 1 out of every 100 children.

‘In July 2007, I contacted Autism Victoria, the peak autism body in the state, to find out how to help improve awareness and research on ASD,’ says Mrs Tennison.

‘That is when I met Dr Cheryl Dissanayake, an autism researcher at La Trobe University and convenor of the Autism Victoria ASD research reference group.’

From the moment they spoke their relationship blossomed. Mrs Tennison had a profound desire to help understand the condition and Dr Dissanayake matched her compassion with knowledge from over twenty years of research in the field.

‘As convenor of the research reference group, I was representing a united group of university researchers, all keen to put an end to the myths and old wives tales that are part and parcel to the autism field, and to instead promote a strong evidence base.’

‘So when Olga wanted to write out a cheque for half a million dollars to me, I was quick to decline on the basis that the funding should be shared amongst all involved in ASD research,’ says Dr Dissanayake.

Mrs Tennison was determined, and in the end it was decided that the money would be best spent building an Autism research centre. In less than a year after their meeting, the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) was established in June 2008.

Outside the field of research, the pair forged a deep relationship based on the absolute trust that Mrs Tennison placed on Dr Dissanayake after only knowing her for two hours. Over the four years they have spent much time sharing dinners, stories, family trials and tribulations and a lot of laughter.

‘We are an unlikely pair, both small in stature and from different generations but we share an unexpected friendship,’ says Dr Dissanayake.

When together they supplement each other’s instinct to promote knowledge, understanding and normality when it comes to the common disability that is ASD.

Mrs Tennison has donated close to two million dollars to a cause she is inherently proud of, and Dr Dissanayake has continued to grow research on ASDs to positively influence the lives of those that are touched by ASD.

‘These parallel efforts have not only garnered our robust friendship but it will hopefully help the lives of everyone that has a friend, family member or co-worker with the disorder,’ says Mrs Tennison.

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Meghan Lodwic
La Trobe University Communications Officer
T:  03 9479 5353 M:  0418 495 941 E: