USD Conference Takes New Approach to Autism

While autism is often thought of as a form of mental retardation, University of San Diego researchers say the condition has more in common with sensory and movement disorders similar to those found in Parkinson’s disorder or Tourrette’s syndrome.

People with autism are not always in control of their movements and their movement difference may have prevented many of them from creating speech, says USD School of Leadership and Education Sciences Professor Anne M. Donnellan. When individuals with autism are given ways to communicate, “the progress they can make is tremendous,” she says.

This approach will be put into practice at a summer conference at USD from July 9-11 that will feature state-of-the-art workshops and discussions on how to better support and understand individuals living with autism.

“People Not Packages: Dynamic Approaches to Personalizing Supports for People with Autism” will explore the role of movement differences in communication and behavior, rhythm and relationships, and sensitivity training to better understand the experiences of those living with autism.

Nearly two decades ago, Donnellan began hearing how a process known as “facilitated communication” could assist some people living with autism. In 1997 she saw first-hand how a 22-year-old southern California woman, previously labeled as “severely retarded” could communicate by typing if someone gave her support.  

When arrangements were made to allow for her movement and speech difficulties, the woman was able to graduate from a community college as class valedictorian with a 4.0 grade point average.

“We need to change the way people think about autism and find new ways for them to participate and communicate what they know. We need to accommodate their movement difference” Donnellan says.  

For fees and registration information go to or call 619-260-7705.

Members of the media are invited to attend the conference. They should contact Liz Harman at the number or e-mail listed above.

The University of San Diego is a Catholic institution of higher learning chartered in 1949; the school enrolls approximately 7,500 students and is known for its commitment to teaching, the liberal arts, the formation of values and community service. The establishment of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies will bring the University's total number of schools and colleges to six. Other academic divisions include the College of Arts and Sciences and the schools of Business Administration, Law, Leadership and Education Sciences, and Nursing and Health Science.


About the University of San Diego

The University of San Diego sets the standard for an engaged, contemporary Catholic university where innovative Changemakers confront humanity’s urgent challenges. With more than 8,000 students from 75 countries and 44 states, USD is the youngest independent institution on the U.S. News & World Report list of top 100 universities in the United States. USD’s eight academic divisions include the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business, the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, the School of Law, the School of Leadership and Education Sciences, the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, and the Division of Professional and Continuing Education. USD recently concluded our successful $317M Leading Change: The Campaign for USD, which represented the most ambitious fundraising effort in the history of the university. In September 2016, USD introduced Envisioning 2024, a strategic plan that capitalizes on the university’s recent progress and aligns new strategic goals with current strengths to help shape a vision for the future as the university looks ahead to its 75th anniversary in the year 2024.