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David Petrushka, Research Intern at the Marcus Autism Center

Meet David Petrushka, a junior from San Francisco double majoring in Strategic Consulting in the Business School and Neuropsychology in the College. In addition to being a research intern for the Marcus Autism Center, David is also involved in TableTalk, Best Buddies, Sexual Assault Awareness Week, and the ATO fraternity. Read on to learn about the Marcus Autism Center and David’s involvement!

Her Campus Emory (HCE): What is the Marcus Autism Center?

David Petrushka (DP): The Marcus Autism Center is actually the coolest thing ever. Marcus is a not-for-profit pediatric autism research center based out of Atlanta. It is one of the nation’s largest centers for clinical care that treats over 5000 patients with autism and related conditions every year. It provides premier programming that covers topics like diagnostics, feeding issues, severe behavior, and family education. In 2012, Marcus was awarded one of only three Autism Centers of Excellence grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)!

HCE: How did you become involved?

DP: Last year I took an advanced abnormal psychology class taught by Celine Saulnier that emphasized the contemporary developments in autism research. This class included a practicum within local autism resource centers. I chose to split my time between diagnostic research and the Severe Behavior department. But as this semester began, I decided that I wanted a change. I chose to move laterally to work within Marcus’ Language and Learning Clinic.

HCE: Could you tell us a little bit about your work?

DP: My work has varied quite a bit based on department, but I can walk you through the work that I have been a part of. In the diagnostics program, I worked with my professor, Celine Saulnier, on her research on ASD diagnostic techniques. She, along with her colleagues, focuses on detecting the earliest sings of autism emerging in infancy. Dr. Ami Klin (the Director of the Marcus Autism Center) and Dr. Warren Jones (Research Director) use innovative eye tracking technology to detect divergence in social visual engagement patterns in infants-at-risk as early as 2 months old! This research has led to the development of an eye-tracking device that is about to undergo an FDA clinical trial for use as a universal screener for autism. This is pivotal because research has shown that the earlier a child begins therapy the better their eventual outcome.

The severe behavior clinic works with patients who present with some form of maladaptive behavior that has caused high levels of disruptions within the lives of the patient. The work being done uses applied behavioral therapies to help replace issues like pica, eloping, and self-injurious behaviors with more functional communication techniques.

HCE: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

DP: I had a very difficult time working in the severe behavior department. Because of the nature of the work, our patients were children whose behaviors were so self destructive that they were deemed dangerous to themselves and others. I had patients who blinded themselves, patients who intentionally ingested poison, and patients who would run into traffic to get away from their families. But it’s important to keep in mind that, although these behaviors sound scary, they were only done as a means of communication. Autism is characterized by a differing ability to communicate, perceive, and navigate human interactions. The patients that I was working with were just as thoughtful as you or I, but their ability to share their thoughts and emotions simply was not the same as ours. The work that is being done in the severe behavior department at Marcus is designed to build functional communication techniques for those whose voices are otherwise left unheard.

HCE: What is your favorite aspect?

DP: I really don’t want to sound cheesy, but my favorite aspect of my work is the results! Although autism therapy is a long and bumpy road, the hard work and long hours that both Marcus professionals and families put in really do have clear benefits for patients.

HCE: Where do you see this work taking you?

DP: After I finish college I am interested in tackling the issue of autism inclusion in the workforce. According to National Report on Employment Services and Outcomes, more than 81% of patients with ASD are unemployed. That number is staggering in comparison to our national unemployment rate of just about 5%. Furthermore, in our lifetimes, the rate of Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses has gone up from 1/500 to 1/68. The burgeoning population of ASD individuals is just now reaching the adult working age, but we have very few systems in place to effectively employ these individuals. This issue can go one of two ways: either we redesign our recruitment and employment opportunities to acknowledge neurologically diverse needs, or we let this enormous population fall into the hands of a failing social welfare program. Personally, I would like to work within the field of human analytics. I want to blend my background in business and the behavioral sciences to design programs that help corporations further understand the needs and abilities of their employees. With this, I hope to help open up the world to the idea of mutually beneficial employment of neurologically diverse individuals.

If you’d like to learn more about the Marcus Autism Center and see how you can get involved, check out their website here!

Campus Celebrity Editor Film Studies Major, Spanish Minor Emory University Class of 2017
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