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Vol 38  No 16
June 29, 2006


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Grand opening of autism centre

By David Sorensen

A new autism centre has been named in honour of Elaine Dobbin, shown here with husband and Memorial honorary degree recipient Craig Dobbin during the centre’s grand opening. (Photo by Chris Hammond)

Elaine Dobbin said it was the cry for help from a friend that first got her involved in the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s ambitious plans for a new support centre.

“When I first met with my friend Joyce (Churchill) who does have a son with autism, I said to her, ‘you seem like you’re really down,” explained Ms. Dobbin. “And she said ‘Elaine, we’ve got to do something. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my Steven. He’s 27-years-old and I have no place for him to go.’ And I said ‘well what can I do to help?’ And that’s how it all started and we went from there.”

That was in October 2003. Less than three years later, the fruits of her efforts were unveiled on the Shamrock Farm property adjacent to the Health Sciences Centre at a ceremony June 8.

In recognition of her leadership and vision, the centre was named the Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism. It is the only provincial facility dedicated to programming and education for individuals, their families affected by autism and those professionals who work with them.

The property was leased to the society by Memorial University for $1.

Joyce Churchill, who is also the president of the Autism Society, explained to a crowd gathered outside the centre for the opening that the dream of a provincial centre “began a long time ago and has evolved from a conversation among a group of concerned, dedicated parents to what you see here today. The efforts required to achieve this success are great and to each of you who have helped along the way thank you, we would not be here without you.”

Ms. Churchill gave high praise to Ms. Dobbin and to the others whose support made the facility possible, including Dr. Axel Meisen, Memorial president, for his “unwavering support.”

Ms. Dobbin said she was honoured to share in the success of the society.

“When we launched the capital campaign in 2003 we had today in our minds, standing here with the main building complete and knowing the many plans for the future is a great reward. This project has been very special to me and this grand opening marks another important milestone for the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“This provincial centre and the programs and services it offers will make a difference in the lives of those individuals affected by autism.”


Autism research will help local families

By Sharon Gray

Pediatric development specialist Dr. Cathy Vardy with two brothers affected by autism spectrum disorder: Ed Chipman (L), age 10, and Craig Jr., age 8. (Photo by HSIMS)

Although the causes of autism are still unknown, the medical and scientific community generally agrees it has a strong genetic basis. Clinical geneticist and Memorial faculty member Dr. Bridget Fernandez is heading up the Newfoundland section of the Autism Genome Project.

Dr. Fernandez said autism is genetic in the same way as asthma ­ it tends to run in families but doesn’t usually involve large numbers of affected family members. “We believe that there are 10 to 20 autism susceptibility genes. It’s only when a sufficient number of these genes are present that autism occurs.”

In addition to genetic susceptibility, Dr. Fernandez said there are likely factors in the environment that contribute to the occurrence of this developmental disorder. “We’re not sure what these environmental exposures are, although we do know the incidence of autism is increasing worldwide.”

Dr. Fernandez’ research team is enrolling Newfoundland children and adults with autism spectrum disorder in the study. Janeway child development pediatricians Drs. Cathy Vardy, Sandra Luscombe and Victoria Crosbie are responsible for detailed reviews of the participant’s medical history along with behavioural and physical examinations.

“This part of a genetic study is called ‘phenotyping’ and provides quality information for the molecular genetic studies in Toronto,” said Dr. Fernandez, adding that her research is only possible because of the skill of Dr. Vardy and her team in administering the standardized diagnostic tests.

“It’s one thing to for a pediatrician or psychiatrist to diagnose a person with autism, but when the diagnostic information will be used to identify susceptibility genes the diagnosis has to be collected in a rigorous, standardized way. Also, I think the families appreciate that the assessment is being done by a team in a structured way.”

Because big families with many affected individuals don’t really exist for autism spectrum disorder, Dr. Fernandez’ team is studying families with one affected child, two affected children or families with more extended relative pairs such as affected first or second cousins. “We need thousands of such families to do the molecular gene hunting experiments and that’s too high a number for any single center to collect. In Newfoundland there are about 75 new pediatric diagnoses per year ­ that’s why we are collaborating with other researchers.”

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