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Autism symposium highlighted by personal experiences

Autism Symposium Highlighted by Personal Experiences
Former USC quarterback Rodney Peete speaks about life with a son with autism.

Hundreds of faculty members, students, alumni and community partners gathered on March 9 at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center for the 23rd Occupational Science Symposium hosted by the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

Speakers shared their innovative research, clinical practices or personal perspectives during “Autism in Everyday Life: Interdisciplinary Research Perspectives at USC.”

For many, the symposium’s highlight was a speech by Rodney Peete ’89. The former USC and National Football League quarterback is the father of a son with autism, Rodney Jackson “R. J.” Peete. Since retiring from pro football, Peete has become an advocate for autism awareness, education and family support largely through the work of his nonprofit HollyRod Foundation, which he co-founded with his wife, actress Holly Robinson Peete.

In 2010, he released his first book, Not My Boy! A Father, a Son and One Family’s Journey With Autism.

Peete described his son’s birth and early childhood development with the beaming pride of a father. But as the boy’s developmental skills began to stall at a young age, Peete recalled his denial and stubbornness to seek professional help, driven in part by his competitive personality and athletics background.

He then recounted what he called his family’s “never day” in 2000, the day when R. J. officially was diagnosed with autism and their physician listed the “nevers” that erroneously are assumed to accompany the autism diagnosis: never going to college, never getting married and never saying “I love you.”

Peete also recalled the day when he put aside his own pride and decided to pursue as much professional assistance and education as possible to help his son.

“From that moment on, I started to see the world through R. J.’s eyes, not mine,” he said.

With years of direct clinical intervention, including occupational therapy, Peete reported that R. J., now 14, has made significant progress in his social, communicative and functional skills. R. J. now attends mainstream school, plays the piano and most important to his parents, says “I love you.”

The Peetes have become advocates for autism education and awareness, especially in the African-American community. Peete thanked Olga Solomon, assistant professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, whose research study, “Autism in Urban Context,” is examining health and service disparities in autism spectrum discorder (ASD) diagnoses of African-American children in Los Angeles.

At the conclusion of his address, Peete received a standing ovation from the audience.

“Rodney’s story gave voice to an oft-unheard perspective in the everyday autism experience, the father’s, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” said Florence Clark PhD ’82, associate dean of the division.

Clark opened the symposium with a tribute to the late Mary Reilly ’51, former director of USC’s graduate program in occupational therapy, who died on Feb. 28 at the age of 95.

Reilly was an iconoclastic leader who pushed the profession to explore and embrace philosophies of human behavior, which ultimately laid the groundwork for establishing the academic discipline of occupational science.

Clark also posthumously accepted the Pioneer Award on behalf of developmental psychologist and former USC faculty member A. Jean Ayres MA ’54, PhD ’61. The award will be housed in the USC Libraries’ Dr. A. Jean Ayres Archive.

Mary Lawlor, director of research at the division, unveiled its Sensory Integration, Engagement and Family Life initiative, which aims to capitalize on the division’s research expertise in autism-related fields. The initiative also plans to extend a portfolio of National Institutes of Health-funded research on projects related to ASD.

Catherine Lord, this year’s recipient of the division’s Patricia Buehler Legacy Award for Clinical Innovation, delivered her keynote address titled “Early Intervention in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Alternatives and Priorities.”

Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, a subsidiary of Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, is known for developing gold-standard assessment tools used to diagnose ASD. She emphasized the synergies between her work’s objectives to more accurately diagnose children with autism and the clinical therapeutic interventions that typically follow diagnosis.

Neuroscientist Pat Levitt, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, presented a lecture titled “Looking at Autism Through a Neurobiological Lens.”

Levitt’s human genetics and basic research studies focus on understanding the causes of neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders. His clinical studies address autism heterogeneity by studying children who also have co-occurring medical conditions, such as gastrointestinal disorders, with the goal to develop better diagnostic criteria and personalized treatments.

Following Levitt’s appearance, Clark outlined evidence that demonstrated the effectiveness of sensory integration interventions for children with autism and ASD. Sensory integration is a therapeutic framework and intervention used by occupational therapists to help children with ASD better organize sensory input for functional use during daily activities.

Susan Knox MA ’68, PhD ’97, who received the division’s 2012 Wilma West Award in recognition of career contributions to the discipline of occupational science, followed Peete with a lecture on the themes of meaning, belonging and play, as related to persons with autism and ASD who are aging into their retirement years.

Knox, who has a brother with autism, created a standardized tool assessing play styles in preschool children.

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