Meet Our Research Assistants
If you have ever participated in research at CAR, it’s likely that you’ve met one of our outstanding research assistants or RA’s. They’re usually undergraduate students gaining experience in the filed before heading off to pursue a graduate degree, and they keep CAR’s wheels turning and work incredibly hard for our staff and for our families. Springtime is a little bittersweet for us, because it’s the time that many of our RA’s gain acceptance to graduate school where they’ll deepen their training and go on to touch lives elsewhere. We’re so proud of them, and can’t wait to see what the future holds for each of them. As we say goodbye to this year’s group, we’ll profile two of our grad school-bound research assistants about why they are pursuing a career in autism, what research they are engaged in at CAR, and where they’re headed in their future professional careers. Maybe you’ve met them!
Rebecca Thomas, Research Assistant
Jennifer Bertollo, Research Assistant
What is your main focus area in autism research?
Ms. Thomas- I’m working on a few of Dr. Judith Miller’s projects that look at how to measure how children respond to the sound of their names, and whether diminished response-to-name is a sensitive indicator of autism at early ages. For one study, we evaluated a novel smartphone app that allows parents to collect video data of their child responding to his/her name in the home environment. Another study uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure differences in how children with and without autism process their parent versus a stranger calling their name and a nonsense word.
Ms. Bertollo- Currently, the majority of my work in autism research is focused on executive functioning skills, from assessment through treatment. Through my research and clinical experiences, during my time at CAR and prior, I have become most interested in understanding and addressing barriers to care and better disseminating evidence-based services into the community, particularly in the realm of early intervention.
Why did you decide to go into autism research?
Ms. Thomas- My interest in autism research has a lot to do with the three years I spent as a special education teacher. Working with adolescents with autism sparked my interest in researching early identification and screening.
Ms. Bertollo- During my time as an undergraduate student at Binghamton University, I had the opportunity to work 1-to-1 with children with autism spectrum disorder. I quickly noticed that I was working with such a broad range of children with an even wider range of needs and outcomes. This motivated me to strive toward a better understanding of interventions for children with autism, including which type of intervention might be most beneficial for which child.
What do you find most exciting about the work you do?
Ms. Thomas- I really enjoy the collaboration that is inherent to research – from brainstorming a grant proposal to meeting with clinicians about individual cases.
Ms. Bertollo - I think the most exciting aspect of the work we do at CAR is how applicable our studies are to the real world. In particular, I have had the opportunity to work on a project evaluating the way in which we assess executive function skills in preschoolers with autism, as well as a project focused on an alternative treatment for adolescents with autism with ADHD. Contributing to research that has such tangible, real-world applications has been truly rewarding.
What do you want people to know about autism?
Ms. Thomas- In “Thinking in Pictures,” Temple Grandin describes taking a cow’s perspective through a slaughterhouse in order to design a better, more efficient system. As a special education teacher, I recognized that how my students with autism viewed their environment, whether through sensitivities to seemingly innocuous stimuli or confusing conversational cues, should inform not only what I taught but how I taught. As a researcher, I hope to continue to emulate Dr. Grandin’s approach to neurodiversity in reminding people that there is not one “best” way to think.
Ms. Bertollo- I want people to know that children and adults with autism, just like children and adults without autism, are each unique. People have their own strengths, their own styles, their own interests… “Different” is not inherently “bad”. The important distinction, I think, is whether a given difference in behaviors or abilities poses a challenge for an individual and makes everyday tasks more difficult for him or her – whether it stops them from reaching their full potential. Our goal as autism professionals must be to put in place appropriate supports to help an individual to be as successful and happy as possible in their environment. When differences are not challenges, but merely differences, I believe that this is where we so badly need acceptance and understanding at a community level. This begins with awareness and sensitive, accurate education about autism spectrum disorder. I have appreciated this as a value that CAR and many other individuals and organizations bring to the communities they serve.
During your time at CAR, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
Ms. Thomas - Working at CAR has taught me the value of interdisciplinary work. The CAR faculty are an extraordinary group of thoughtful, brilliant scientists who encourage collaboration over isolation. I hope to carry their torch of collaboration with me to graduate school!
Ms. Bertollo- During my time at CAR, I think the most important things I’ve learned have been from the families we are so lucky to work with each day. Each family who chooses to share their story with us has a profound impact on the work that we do here and on the work I envision myself pursuing moving forward. When we meet families who are experiencing first-hand the very issues we are researching, assessing, treating, etc., we learn about what life is like for them outside of our four walls. We gain a stronger appreciation for the nuances we need to be aware of and sensitive to in our work. Without their valuable insight, we would be missing such a big piece of the puzzle.
From a professional standpoint, where are you headed next?
Ms. Thomas - I’m headed to the Fein/Barton Lab at the University of Connecticut to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.
Ms. Bertollo - My next step is heading back to school! This fall, I will be starting my Clinical Psychology Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, where I will have the opportunity to work on several parent-mediated intervention studies, as well as rural outreach efforts to assess service needs and barriers, and ultimately bring services to individuals who might not otherwise have access to them.