The University Record, January 28, 2002

New U-M autism center opens in Victor Vaughn Building

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

David Telfer plays with bubbles during a visit to the new Center for Autism and Communication Disorders. (Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
Nine-year-old David Telfer recently spent an hour assembling puzzles and chasing balloons with clinical psychologist Christina Corsello. He even demonstrated the steps of tooth-brushing, from spreading the toothpaste on the brush, to rinsing.

Throughout the session, Corsello, associate director of the new Center for Autism and Communication Disorders (UMACC), noted his language and sequencing abilities and his social interaction skills. David, who has autism, is among the center’s first clients.

“It was very exciting to watch,” said Ann Telfer, David’s mother and development director for UMACC. “I was able to witness much improvement in his willingness to communicate and engage in imaginative play. David has severely delayed speech development but Christina focuses on his strengths, such as his visual skills, and uses those as a mechanism for teaching.”

Corsello used the Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale (ADOS) to measure different aspects of David’s language and social development. Designed by UMACC director Catherine Lord and her co-researchers, the ADOS is endorsed by the National Institutes of Health as the tool of choice for developing standard diagnoses of autism.

UMACC, which officially opened this month, integrates clinical service with cross-disciplinary research and training. “I see that integration of clinical work with research as our biggest strength,” said Corsello. “Ours is the first such center to link empirical evaluation with treatment and diagnosis in a meaningful way.”

An estimated one per 150–200 children has autism spectrum disorders, according to Lord. She defines autism as “a developmental disorder that may be caused by neurobiological abnormalities that occur before birth or during the first two years of life. We don’t know for sure. We do know it causes difficulties in three areas: social interaction, communication and language development, and repetitive behavior or interests. Those can be anything from an obsession with Scottish clans or train schedules to repetition of complicated rituals.”

The diagnosis has broadened in recent years to include people with mild problems at one end of the spectrum, to those with profound mental retardation at the other. The center will work with people of all ages who span that entire range.

A division of the Institute for Human Adjustment (IHA) within the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, UMACC provides training for graduate students in clinical and developmental psychology, social work, and education in the diagnosis and treatment of children with autism. Child psychiatrists from the Medical School will contribute clinical assessments and training.

Lord, a professor of psychology and clinical psychologist, and Corsello came to U-M from the University of Chicago last September to launch and lead the new center. They are now assessing the first influx of client referrals. Families from throughout the state and country already have contacted the center located in the Victor Vaughn Building.

“Our goal is to provide high quality, family-specific services as we conduct concurrent research projects. For example, we are participating in the international molecular genetics project that studies the genetic component of autism,” said Lord. “We hope to become a center of autism research for the University and to build on the work of other clinics here.”

Family and community involvement is a priority. After the initial diagnosis, the center’s staff will do periodic follow-up consultation with families. “We will help parents understand what we’ve learned about other children with autism and to apply those findings in working with their own children,” Lord said.

“That also goes for teachers and speech and occupational therapists who work with children with autism.” Lord and Corsello plan to work with job coaches who help adults with autism find employment.

UMACC also offers a public lecture series and training to professionals in the use of diagnostic tools. This February’s training session is drawing participants from around the world.

UMACC was established through the efforts of Robert Hatcher, IHA director, Holly Craig, director of the U-M Center for the Development of Language and Literacy (formerly known as the Communicative Disorders Clinic) in collaboration with psychology professors Henry Wellman and Patricia Gurin. Major support and funding come from the Rackham Graduate School and the Office of the Provost.

For more information, visit the UMACC Web site at