When Professor Andrew Whitehouse entered the field of autism research ten years ago, the thought of preventing the disability associated with the disorder was purely science fiction. But talking to him ahead of World Autism Day on 2 April, you get the feeling that what was a pipedream could soon be a scientific reality.
Born and bred in Perth, the UWA graduate first trained as a Speech Pathologist and it was purely by chance that his interest in the field of autism was sparked.
“My mum volunteered me to spend some time with her friend’s 4-year-old son who had just been diagnosed with autism. I was a typical 18-year-old, mainly focussed during my university days on having a good time. Meeting this young boy and his family not only opened my eyes, but truly changed the course of my life."
“His parents had realised he was developing differently, and that they needed to do something, but they didn’t know what. It was very confronting for the family, first in the initial stages as they waited for a diagnosis, then post-diagnosis as they tried to comprehend it all and figure out how best to support their son,” he said.
It was at this time that Andrew realised how much more the community needed to do to help children with autism fulfil their potential and he promptly went on to complete his PhD in Psychology at UWA and carried onto Oxford.
“After my PhD I knew I could contribute to the field on a greater scale if I focused on research. Oxford was a wonderful experience but after a few years away I really felt the desire to come home to Perth and focus my attention here,” he said.
Andrew came home in 2009 and now directs a team of 20 researchers at the Telethon Kids Institute where they look into the causes of autism and how to help kids diagnosed with the disorder reach their full potential.
“The best way to change the life course of a child diagnosed with autism is to identify the condition as early as possible. Currently the average age of diagnosis is four and a half years which means we miss out on years of valuable time to apply our therapies. By finding ways to identify autism in the first two years of life, our ability to change the trajectory of disability is multiplied by ten,” he says.
With this in mind, Andrew’s excited about what’s coming next for his team which is a world first.
“We’re conducting the first very early intervention trial. We’re identifying 12-month-old infants who are showing very early signs of developmental delay, and applying our newly developed therapy. Our hope is that by applying these interventions so early, we can forever change the trajectory of disability."
“It’s a great feeling embarking on this type of cutting edge research; it’s why we get out of bed each morning. We want to turn science fiction into fact – and in the process, hopefully, change the lives of thousands of families,” he says.
Check out Andrew’s famous 60SecondScience videos on Autism Research Team’s Facebook page.