UA Establishes Center for Innovative Autism Research

From the July 2020 Desktop News | UA’s newly-established Center for Innovative Research in Autism, or CIRA, has already begun to make an impact in the realm of research on autism spectrum disorders.

CIRA, which was formally created in April, strives to change the way medical professionals identify and treat individuals with autism through collaborative and cutting-edge research. The center currently connects 20 faculty members, with specialties ranging from neuroscience to special education to communicative disorders. This interdisciplinary model, according to psychology professor and CIRA director Dr. Rajesh Kana, is what allows the center to be successful.

“For example, I’m a neuroscientist,” Kana said. “but my research also involves clinical testing and diagnostic characterization of children and adults with autism, for which I rely on researchers with that clinical background, as well as those in the special education department or other departments. So, a human subject-based neuroscience or neuroimaging research project involving autism has to be interdisciplinary, in terms of collaborative work. It won’t be successful otherwise.”

Currently, CIRA has over a dozen projects in progress, including studies involving reading comprehension, driving skills, theatre intervention for developing social skills, socioemotional development in children, language development, stress in autism families, and family-centered social communication interventions. And while each project has a different focus, Kana says that the goals driving the center are the same—creating ways to more accurately and quickly diagnose autism, and developing new ways to help individuals and their families intervene and cope with the disorder.

“Behavioral-based diagnosis can take a long time as behaviors are more amorphous in the early years—thus, it can be two or three years before autism gets diagnosed,” Kana said. “We want to enhance the pace of the diagnosis and identify these children very early by looking at their brain or other biomarkers. And the other half of it is helping after diagnosis. How can we help a child and their family through creating and assigning proper training mechanisms and intervention?”

For CIRA, this isn’t just a chance to provide new and innovative research to the world—it’s an opportunity to give back to members of the community in Tuscaloosa and the rest of the state of Alabama and help those in the region better cope and live with the disorder.

“We want to build a better and reciprocal relationship with the community, and give them more access to facilities for diagnosis and intervention,” Kana said.

The mission of CIRA is to facilitate basic and translational research that can help understand the cognitive and biological bases of autism, and to apply this knowledge to diagnosis and evidence-based intervention, ultimately leading to improving the lives of people with autism. The center is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, but is open to all researchers and scholars from any college for collaboration.

For more information about CIRA, visit the center’s website.