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Three Ontario university graduate students are being recognized by the Council of Ontario Universities for their transformative autism research that supports new discoveries, treatments and contributions that will positively impact children with autism and their families. Each year, the Autism Scholars Award is presented to doctoral- and master’s-level researchers at an Ontario university.
This year’s recipients of the doctoral-level Autism Scholars Award, and a $20,000 prize, are Nancy Marshall from York University and Alexandra Minuk from Queen’s University. The recipient of the master’s-level Autism Scholars Award, and an $18,000 prize, is Braxton Hartman from York University.
Nancy Marshall’s research is the first to explore the mental health and well-being outcomes related to Applied Behavioural Analysis – the most widely recommended treatment and education approach for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families in Ontario. The outcome of her research will help inform and enhance autism support services to better meet the needs of individuals on the spectrum across the province.
Alexandra Minuk’s research investigates the regional, populational and socio-economic variables associated with the disparities and barriers in accessing autism spectrum disorder diagnosis and treatment in Ontario. The outcome of her research will help identify regions where families may require additional support and could help inform the allocation of resources for Ontario schools and school boards.
Braxton Hartman’s research examines how networks in the brain communicate with one another and how this can differ in individuals with autism. The outcome of his research will help provide insight into the underlying neural basis of autism, which could open new avenues of autism research, such as therapeutics and clinical decision making.
The Autism Scholars Awards Program was established with the support of the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to ensure Ontario continues to promote leading-edge scholarship into autism, which affects 1 in 66 Canadian children and youth, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
For more information on how the awards are administered, click here.
To learn about last year’s winners, click here.
To better understand the mental health and well-being outcomes for autistic people who have received Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) therapy, Nancy Marshall’s research is investigating the outcomes of this treatment. To date, no studies in Ontario have examined mental health or well-being outcomes for recipients of ABA treatment, which is the most widely recommended treatment and education approach for people with autism.
Marshall will address this critical gap through a three-stage approach: survey analysis, online interviews and collaboration with autistic people to share personal stories of their experiences. A primary goal of her research is to gain deeper insights into the reasons ABA services may or may not be valued as effective interventions to support people with autism.
By listening to the stories of study participants and those who support them, her research examines both positive and negative experiences of behavioural interventions. In doing so, Marshall aims to help include the voices of people with autism in policy, practice and research, as well as enhance autism support services and community schools to better meet their needs.
In addition, Marshall’s research adopts a disability justice lens that aims to center the needs and desires of autistic people. This includes the intentional use of identity-first language (autistic person) preferred by many autistic people.
Nancy Marshall is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education at York University. She received both her master’s degree and bachelor’s degree from Toronto Metropolitan University in the child and youth care program. Over the last 15 years, Marshall has worked as a child and youth worker with autistic and neurodivergent young people in a variety of settings. She received the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for her volunteer work supporting young people through organizations, such as Bereaved Families of Ontario and the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.
While the last two decades have seen a notable increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), some families continue to face barriers accessing diagnostic services. By identifying significant regional, populational and socio-economic variables associated with disparities and barriers in accessing ASD diagnosis and treatment in Ontario, Alexandra Minuk’s research will help create a landscape of ASD diagnosis that accounts for Ontario’s diversity and geography, as well as identify regions where families may require additional support.
Minuk’s research will investigate the relationship between family-related factors and ASD diagnosis through a three-phased approach: mapping the proportion of students diagnosed with ASD according to Ontario’s school board boundaries, selecting census variables to determine existing relationships between variables and the percentage of students diagnosed with ASD, and identifying any significant relationships and interactions that exist between variables.
The methods used also represent a novel approach to the study of ASD diagnosis, which may help inform the allocation of resources for schools and school boards.
Alexandra Minuk is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, where she also received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a bachelor’s degree in primary/junior education. Prior to pursing graduate studies, Minuk worked internationally as a classroom teacher for students with ASD. She has also worked as an educational consultant for teacher training with the overall goal of making general education more inclusive for students with disabilities.
By exploring how networks in the brain communicate with one another and how the brain processes information, Braxton Hartman’s research aims to understand how these interactions can differ in individuals on the autism spectrum. This research could open new avenues of autism research, such as therapeutics and clinical decision-making in diagnoses.
By using functional connectively to map out the connections between different regions of the brain, Hartman will apply computational and statistical techniques to determine differences in how neural networks are organized in autistic brains and what impact this may have on the cognitive differences that characterize the condition.
Using this approach, Hartman has since identified disruptions to the hierarchical organization of brain networks, which could underlie the core cognitive processes of individuals with autism.
Braxton Hartman is a master’s candidate in psychology at York University, where he is also pursuing a graduate diploma in neuroscience. Hartman is an aspiring neuroscientist and autism advocate with a broad range of experience in research, teaching, advocacy and public service roles.