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Science vs. Reality

Published November 15, 2016 in News

By: Jane Kelly | University Communications

When psychologist Vikram Jaswal began his professional career at the University of Virginia in 2003, most of his work focused on how preschool-aged children learn.

Then his daughter was diagnosed with autism and his research began to shift toward questions about the condition and communication.

Jaswal, an associate professor of psychology, and his wife, Tauna Szymanski, recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post, provocatively titled, “Why Our Second Grader is Not Going Back to School.” In it, they lament that for a third year in a row, their school system had decided their daughter would have to spend at least half of each day in a segregated, “self-contained” classroom with other children with autism – despite research that shows children with disabilities do better when given the support they need in a regular classroom with their non-disabled peers. Disappointed with the school’s decision, Jaswal and Szymanski decided to educate their daughter in the community instead of the public schools.

Jaswal is using his personal experience and his professional skills to teach a new course.

“In 'The Science and Lived Experience of Autism,' we are grappling with the disconnect between what a good deal of peer-reviewed science says autistic people are like, and what autistics and their families say they are like,” he said.

The course is one of four new, yearlong civic and community engagement seminars being offered in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Through the course of the year, 20 UVA students will work with 10 college-aged, nonspeaking autistic people in Northern Virginia who refer to themselves as “The Tribe.”

The autistic students meet as a group each week with a speech-language pathologist and are participating in the seminar virtually, doing some of the readings and contributing typed comments and posts to the class’s online discussions.

Jaswal said one goal is for the UVA students to collaborate with members of The Tribe to develop new research questions that reflect concerns and interests of some in the autism community. The groups will meet in person several times during the academic year.


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