Professor Alison Lane (formerly of the University of Newcastle) has recently joined the staff of OTARC as Deputy Director. In this position she will be responsible for research leadership, early career mentoring, as well as progressing her own research program on sensory profiles with a focus on the infant and toddler years.
A career with a dual focus
A generalist in paediatric occupational therapy, Alison spent the early part of her career as a clinician focused on helping children with learning, movement and medical issues. Over time, much of her practice and that of her OT colleagues became dominated by children and families seeking practical help for sensory issues linked to their autism diagnosis. At the time, a majority of the therapy options available for these children lacked an evidence base to support them but the demand for services was immense. So, Prof. Lane started to think about the best way to help the greatest number of these children. Around this time (2004), she met a colleague from the Pharmacy department at the University of South Australia who also happened to be the parent of an autistic child. Alison was asked to join the multidisciplinary working group she was founding, which had the aim of improving services and of researching therapies for autistic children.
Fast-forward 15 years, and Prof Lane has an established career with a dual focus – that of clinician and researcher. In her most recent role, before joining OTARC, she was both a Clinic Director and the Head of a research team. Her research is primarily focused on recognising the different sensory profiles of autistic children, their functional impact, and their accompanying developmental trajectories. The ultimate aim of classifying autism via sensory profiles is to introduce a more systematic approach for targeting therapies towards those children and families most likely to benefit.
Changes in autism research
When asked what has changed in autism research in the past 15 years, Alison makes the point that there were hardly any interventions for autistic children, let alone interventions that had evidence behind them. It is not only the number but the kind of interventions that have expanded in recent years. As well as well-known behavioural therapies, there are now several other kinds of therapies with developmental, sensory and relationship (parent-mediated) foundations.
These changes mean that the clinical landscape now has more scope for individualised attention in that there is both a wider variety of interventions, as well as more individual choice in selecting from the range of therapies (thanks in part to schemes like the NDIS). Prof. Lane’s work seeks to help families identify which therapies are most likely to work for them and their children.
In the last three to five years, Alison has seen improved acknowledgment of the importance of interactions between autistic individuals and researchers, particularly in the realm of co-production of research. When asked if she can provide a specific example, she replies with an interaction she says was formative – where a parent in a lab-based experiment provided critical feedback on giving detailed instructions in advance of the clinic visit. Since then, Prof. Lane has always tried to design studies and develop research information materials with the perspective of the parent and young autistic person front of mind, and consults families regarding the acceptability and importance of the research.
What attracted you to OTARC?
“I was working in a role that had a typical split for allied health in universities: a bit of teaching, a bit of clinical practice, and research squeezed into whatever time I had leftover. Seeing the dedicated research role at OTARC really piqued my interest, as this opportunity to have such a singular focus is rare in my field. The leadership aspect appealed to me too, especially since I have had professional interactions with many OTARC researchers previously and know what a dedicated and professional team they are.”