Honouring research to improve life for young people with autism
June 25, 2018

Two Ontario university researchers are being recognized for their research to improve the lives of young people with autism.

Patrick Jachyra, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and Kaitlyn Parks, a Master’s student at Western University, are the 2018 recipients of the Autism Scholars Awards, administered by the Council of Ontario Universities.

Jachyra, who receives the $20,000 Doctoral Award, is studying the social and behavioral reasons why young people with autism tend to be less physically active, and what changes can be made to their support systems to encourage more activity.

Parks, recipient of the $18,000 Masters Award, is researching the role played by statistical learning – the ability to understand patterns and probabilities in everyday language – in the difficulties young people with autism have with language and social communication.

The Autism Scholars Awards support the latest in leading-edge research into autism, which is the fastest growing neurological disorder in Canada, and which affects one in 66 Canadian children, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“The research of this year’s scholars, and the broad range of  autism research being conducted across Ontario’s universities, is having a positive impact on the lives of young people with autism and their families,” said David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities.

“Such research, and the daily care and support of the health-care professionals educated and trained by universities, plays a major role in expanding knowledge about autism and improving the quality of life of those Ontarians affected by the disorder. Ontario’s universities are committed to partnering to improve the lives of Ontarians.”

The Autism Scholars Awards Program was established with the support of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (now the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development) to ensure that Ontario attracts and retains pre-eminent scholars studying autism.

For more information on how the awards are administered, click here.

The 2018 Autism Scholars Award Winners

Doctoral Award
Patrick Jachyra, University of Toronto

Patrick Jachyra’s project aims to discover why young people (12-19) with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) tend to be less physically active than their peers. Since inactivity can lead to health issues such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and depression, it is important not only to pinpoint the social and behavioral causes of the inactivity, but also to examine the conditions that might lead to more physical activity to potentially improve their health and quality of life.

Patrick is conducting two studies of young people with ASD – one using in-person interviews and another based on a written survey – asking questions about their habits, preferences and social conditions that might be inhibiting or encouraging participation in physical activity. Results of the research will help inform how to create programs, services, and supports that help young people with ASD become more active.

Patrick is a PhD candidate in the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute at the University of Toronto and the Bloorview Research Institute at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. He is a trainee in the Autism Research Training Program, and a trainee in the Collaborative Program in Bioethics at the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto.

Master’s Award
Kaitlyn Parks, Western University

Kaitlyn Parks’ research examines the role of statistical learning difficulties in contributing to the problems children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face in learning language and speech, as well as understanding social cues. In statistical learning, a child learns to recognize the patterns and probabilities in everyday language and other forms of communication – for instance, the likelihood that two spoken syllables either indicate one word or two separated words. The statistical learning difficulties identified in children with ASD have been linked to their challenges with language and social communication.

Kaitlyn’s research objective is to identify underlying factors that help early language and social communication abilities in children with ASD, with the aim of informing clinical practice to remedy the difficulties that can arise from poor language and social communication skills. She is a Master’s student in Psychology at Western University.