McCandless woman honored for autism research

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Children with autism sometimes have difficulty learning to communicate effectively.

The research of Diane Williams of McCandless, a speech-language pathology associate professor at Duquesne University since 2006, is geared toward helping those with autism communicate better. Because of her research, Williams recently was named the Anna Rangos Rizakus Endowed Chair in Health Sciences and Ethics at Duquesne.

“Breaking through that communication barrier is what can make a really big difference for an individual,” said Williams, 59.

“If you can't communicate well with other people, then that really limits your ability to be a part of society.”

Autism is a developmental disorder in the brain that is characterized by impaired social and verbal function.

Williams's research uses a type of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to collect images of the brain while the participant does simple tasks, such as reading.

“We can tell which parts of the brain are being used while the individuals are actively doing a task,” Williams said.

“That helps us learn more about how their brains work when processing language.”

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, people who have the condition can range from being unable to communicate at all to having some ability to speak and perform tasks.

The Anna Rangos Rizakus Chair allows the faculty member more time to concentrate on research with a break in her teaching load for a five-year term.

Department heads nominate faculty, and the final decision is made by Duquesne's president, Charles Dougherty.

Mikael Kimelman, associate professor and chairman of the department of speech-language pathology, nominated Williams for the position.

“Dr. Williams' work is embedded in an ethical expression of the need for scientists and clinical practitioners to work together to solve the pressing challenges faced by people with autism and their families,” said Kimelman, 58, of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Melanie Donahoo is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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