Studying autism abroad

Graduate student Jennifer Lopez holds her baby cousin in the Dominican Republic this past year.
Graduate student Jennifer Lopez holds her baby cousin in the Dominican Republic this past year.

By Rena Carman

Not many people can change the world, but many strive to, and do make a difference. Jennifer Lopez, a graduate student in the Applied Psychology Program, conducted an independent research project: “Autism Awareness, Perceptions, Services and Interventions, in the Dominican Republic,” to uncover the truth about autism in the small Caribbean country.

Lopez developed her interest in developmental disabilities while living in the Dominican Republic. While attending college, she discovered a new field: autism and applied behavior analysis.

“My interest in autism in particular grew when I began my graduate studies in the Applied Behavior Analysis Program here at Rider,” Lopez said.

“I traveled regularly to my home country [the Dominican Republic], and after speaking to some families and friends about what I do, I realized that not many people knew about autism, and that autism awareness is not something common,” Lopez said. “So I decided to combine two things that I am passionate about, autism and the Dominican Republic, and make them the topic for my research and independent study.”

Lopez visited the Dominican Republic twice this year, once during the fall semester and once in the spring. In the fall, she interviewed professionals in the field of autism to gain knowledge in the types of services and interventions that are available to individuals with autism and their families. The spring trip involved surveying the community to “learn about the level of autism awareness” in the Dominican Republic.

“With the guidance of my faculty mentor, Dr. Chrystina Dolyniuk, I was able to prepare my research and complete the necessary steps and procedures to embark on this journey,” Lopez said. “Both studies are a part of an ongoing investigation, which I plan on continuing in the near future.”

Lopez reached out to Dolyniuk after attending a faculty lecture Dolyniuk gave in April of 2014 about autism in the Ukraine. Dolyniuk also has an interest in autism and did her own traveling and research.

“I have been interested in that topic for a while now, and was selected to travel to Ukraine twice on two separate Fulbright Specialists Grants, to address the needs of parents and professionals,” Dolyniuk said. “While there, I conducted culturally sensitive community-based research.”

Not everyone has a full understanding of what autism is or how to treat and cope with it.

According to Dolyniuk, “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that involves qualitative differences in socio-communicative functioning and unusual, repetitive or ritualistic behaviors. Individuals with ASD may have a range of abilities and their difficulties are apparent from a young age.”

Researching a Dominican Republic community gave Lopez the chance to gather information on her own and experience it firsthand. From this, she was able to “better understand the needs of the community in terms of their knowledge” on autism.

ASD is a global issue that people are finally beginning to understand. According to Lopez, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in every 68 children in the United States has been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“However, the prevalence of autism in developing countries such as the Dominican Republic has not been reported due to the lack of research done in this area,” she said.

Her work focuses on the needs of the people in the Dominican Republic, which is why the study is community-based.

“There is a need to raise global awareness of ASD and to provide training and support to parents and professionals,” Dolyniuk said. “But that training should be specific to the needs of culture and community.”

Lopez concurred with Dolyniuk.

“One important thing that I took away from this research is that there is a need for autism awareness and resources in the Dominican Republic,” Lopez said. “I was also able to spread the word about autism awareness, which was very rewarding.”

Lopez’s research has been selected for the American Psychological Association (APA) 2015 Convention, and she will be presenting her study this summer in Toronto.

“Her work is very important,” Dolyniuk said. “It’s an opportunity to bring knowledge and awareness of autism to a country where knowledge, awareness, and services are limited.”

“I plan on continuing this research project,” Lopez said. “And I encourage anyone that is passionate about autism and in helping others to consider this area of research and to learn more about how to spread the word and awareness globally.”


printed in the 4/22/15 edition

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