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Award-winning professor Terisa Gabrielsen talks about what BYU is doing to contribute to autism research

To some, Terisa Gabrielsen, PhD, is a friend; to others, she is a hero—literally. Recently, Gabrielsen, of the McKay School Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department, won two awards: first, A Friend to the Utah Speech-Language-Hearing Association (USHA), and second, the Autism Hero Award, presented by the Autism Resources Utah County Council (ARUCC).

Terisa holding her Autism Hero Award
Photo courtesy of McKay Creative

Gabrielsen received the first award for collaborating with the Department of Communication Disorders in the interdisciplinary diagnostic practicum clinic. Gabrielsen saw the value of combining her work on autism with speech-language pathology, since a speech-language pathologist’s office is often the first place a child with autism may visit. “Invariably, of the six cases we take [for the practicum] each term, there’s at least three involving questions about autism,” said Gabrielsen. 

Autism research is where Gabrielsen has made the largest impact, and that is why she also won the Autism Hero Award. The ARUCC gives out the award annually to a community member who has worked in the autism field for ten or more years to improve the lives of both individuals with autism and their families. And being able to improve the lives of others is one of the reasons Gabrielsen was drawn to school psychology. “I had a lot of interests I was looking at, and many of the interests were very long trajectories before I could have an impact,” said Gabrielsen. “When I stumbled onto school psychology, I realized on my first day of work that I could have an impact, and that really attracted me.” 

Even before day one, Gabrielsen was making impressive contributions to autism research as a graduate student. While researching for her dissertation, she and her team found that many children who showed signs of autism had not been identified as being at risk for autism as toddlers. 

Gabrielsen and her team also had experts in the field review videos of social interactions for ten minutes, the standard length of a pediatric visit. “About a third of the time, the experts thought the children with autism did not have autism because they saw mostly typical behavior for a short period of time.” Gabrielsen emphasized that pediatricians aren’t to blame, but that if parents still suspect autism, they should continue to seek an evaluation. 

Gabrielsen with daughter and grandaughter
Photo courtesy of Mark A. Philbrick

Gabrielsen isn’t the only hero for autism: she is part of a larger network of dedicated autism researchers across disciplines, the BYU Autism Research Group. In 2016, the team, led by Gabrielsen, analyzed the brains of low-

language, low-cognition children with autism via MRI imaging. This group, she says, has largely been ignored by researchers because they can be difficult to work with. But the BYU team was well equipped for the challenge. “We were able to use our behavioral techniques that we know so well from being school psychologists to help kids feel more comfortable in the MRI environment and we got some really groundbreaking data.”

Another recent project headed by McKay School’s Ryan Kellems was the creation of Marla, an animated fish designed to help children with autism improve their social skills. BYU also holds an annual autism workshop open to the public and a support group on campus for students with autism. 

Currently, Gabrielsen is on a team finishing up a study about females with autism, another group that is often under-researched and misunderstood, because their characteristics manifest differently than their male counterparts. After that, she will take on the next big interdisciplinary project: studying the predictors of suicide for socially isolated populations, a population that too often includes individuals with autism. Gabrielsen said that individuals with autism are up to eight times more at risk of suicide than the general population, depending on the study.

Gabrielsen is incredibly grateful for the support BYU has given to autism research, particularly for how the university has created networks of like-minded researchers. “We’ve just met some wonderful people across institutions and across the valley that have been very helpful all along the way,” she said. “I think that’s the key to autism, whether its clinical support or research: to reach out and find other people.” 

Writer: Anessa Pennington
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922