August 25, 2015

Q&A: Bill Ahearn, New England Center for Children

Courtesy of the NECC

Bill Ahearn is director of research at the New England Center for Children, a nonprofit autism education center in Southborough.

Q: How did you get into the field of autism research?

A: I was originally trained as a basic behavior analyst and was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University. While there I became very interested in autism because of some of the very interesting and challenging clients I interacted with there.

Q: What are some of the most important research findings in this field in recent history?

A: As a clinician, the findings that are the most interesting suggest that very young children, age 18 months or so, benefit substantially from early intensive behavior analysis. If we were able to diagnose autism as early as possible and get those children appropriate, individually-tailored intervention, we would be saving substantially on the costs of caring for those individuals through their lifespan.

Q: What are researchers striving to understand today?

A: Genetics research is keenly focused on uncovering the mechanisms behind the development of autism as a disorder while clinical research is looking at the best predictors of responsiveness to intervention. These are, in my opinion, the most important.

Q: How do you expect the autism research and treatment field to change in the next 5 to 10 years?

A: Research will not change rapidly because research is a process and it takes time. Treatment, however, is undergoing a rapid change. Autism advocates have been successful in increasing insurance coverage for treating autism. Many more families can now access services and there is a push to license applied behavior analysts (who work with children with autism) to ensure the public can identify competent providers.

This interview was edited for length and clarity by Emily Micucci.

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