TTUHSC hosts autism conference

To help bring awareness to and provide information about autism, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center on Friday held the Permian Basin Autism Education Conference.

Held at the TTUHSC Academic Classroom Building, it drew at least 90 people from around the region. The participants were all people from Texas Tech health sciences.

Conference Coordinator Ariel Garcia said the office of Continuing Medical Education hopes to bridge educational gaps for physicians and healthcare teams.

With April being Autism Awareness month, they wanted to organize a conference to mark that.

“… We started out with just offering it to physicians, but we realized that a lot of the advocacy comes from parents, the community and people that are affected by autism, so we decided to open it up to the public and create this unique opportunity for patients, parents and physicians to be all in one room together and collaborate,” Garcia said.

At the end, they had a panel discussion and Q&A with a physician, behavioral therapist, a patient with Autism Spectrum Disorder and a parent with a child with ASD.

“This is unique because there really hasn’t been anything like this in the community before and it’s something that we do hope to continue annually. But this is also an opportunity for physicians to get up to date on the best practices, on the latest research,” she said.

“We also have a session on the overlap of ADHD and autism. What’s the difference and is there an overlap and how do you know, so it’s also an opportunity for parents to see what physicians actually are doing, what they’re learning how they’re applying it to their patients, and then to mingle with the community and get that face-to-face interaction,” Garcia added.

This event is important not only for the physicians and staff, but the community as well.

“I think it’s really significant for the community because it gives them an opportunity to hear and see what those best practices are, feel like they’re being advocated for, and that our community’s physicians are educated in this particular disorder. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback that people are grateful that this type of situation is happening in our community. We had people come from Lubbock, from Crane, from Stanton (and) also … outreach to the rural communities and the rural hospitals and getting those nurses and doctors here as well, is a great opportunity,” Garcia said.

The awareness of autism spectrum disorder is growing and Texas Tech is trying to reduce the stigma and make it more accepted.

Garcia noted that a lot of the physicians who spoke Friday have children affected by ASD or know someone close to them who is. There were also physicians who treat patients with autism.

“So they’re very passionate about why they wanted to be part of this conference, even though that’s not their specific specialty. … And I think it’s just bringing awareness specifically to the Permian Basin …,” Garcia said.

Dr. John Garcia, assistant academic dean, said the conference is very important for this area.

“… As the sole medical school in our area, I think it’s not only our responsibility to educate our physicians and other health care providers, but it’s important to let the public know that we’re also here for them. I think as a medical school, we’re privy to a lot of information that that comes with being able to do research.

“We know cutting-edge technology and best practices that are coming out of out of that research every day and so I think I think it’s important that we provide resources to, not only our physicians but to everyone in our community,” John Garcia said.

Autism is being more well know, people know more about it and there is more research being done about it.

“I think the more everyone tends to learn about it, the more attention is going to be paid and more diagnoses you’re going to see for it,” John Garcia added.

Ariel Garcia said she thinks people are seeking more diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder than they have in the past.

John Garcia said there are varying opinions on the cause of autism depending on who you talk to.

“… But it all comes back to the research so really going out and ensuring that you’re looking at peer reviewed research that’s coming from reputable sources is going to be super important,” he added.

John Garcia said Tech has conferences like this with physicians who deal with ASD daily and they are in the best position to speak to it.

“We encourage people to take advantage of the resources that TTUHSC, the School of Medicine, is able to provide. Again, we have top-notch practitioners here who are able to assist with various healthcare needs,” he added.

Dr. Stephanie Villarreal, a pediatrician with TTUHSC, spoke on emerging research on autism, of which there is a lot.

“… The most important research is that we still do not fully understand what causes autism. But we do understand that it’s not one thing, that autism has likely multiple causes. It depends on each child. That’s why we say that when you meet one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. It could be from a genetic syndrome. It could be from a medication that mother took or an infection that mother had,” Villarreal said.

“But the leading theory is that it has to do with something called an epigenome. Our epigenome is the way our DNA interacts with our environment and our experiences. That combination of our DNA in our environment is what leads to autism. Now, there have been studies that have found that we may be able to detect autism in the infant period that we can see that the way they use their eyes, the ways they track, the ways they look at things is different. There are some things being developed out there that may be able to identify autism a lot earlier. We can tell that maybe a baby who’s not looking at the mom in their face at their eyes, that may be concerning for autism,” she added.

Villarreal said what parents want is a cure for autism.

“There are a lot of studies that are looking at medications that may help reverse symptoms of autism, but as of right now, there is no medication that can quote unquote cure autism,” she said.

Right now, the treatment is intervention.

“We identify the deficits of every child with autism, and we intervene in those specific deficits. So for every child it will be different. There are commonalities. We know that speech therapy is good. Autism is a problem of communication deficit. Speech therapists can help a lot with that. A behavioral therapist can help with problematic behaviors,” Villarreal said.

She added that there are signs and signals you can pick up on early, but most parents will start getting concerned in the toddler years, specifically with language and communication.

But it may still take a few years before it is diagnosed.

She added that the brain is moldable in the first three years of life.

“If you can catch it early and intervene early, your prognosis is better,” Villarreal said. “That has been proven.”

The goal for conferences like the one Friday is to push awareness because “one year, two years can make a lifetime of difference for a child,” she added.