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University conference on autism and ADHD builds knowledge on how to help children thrive

The Owerko Centre showcases collaborative research from the lab to the clinic

Marge Owerko (at left), her daughter Maryn Milazzo (third from left) and Susan Graham, director of the Owerko Centre (right) gave the awards to trainees on June 1 at the Foothills Campus. The winners of the trainee competition were Yegor Korchemagin (undergraduate), Erin Hetherington (graduate) and Nicole Racine (postdoctoral fellow).

As parents and communities, we generally accept that every child should have all the available opportunities to learn, grow and succeed. But for children with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), getting a chance to thrive is not always easy.

The Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute hosted its second annual conference this month to better understand the current research on these disorders and build collaborations from the lab to the clinic. The Owerko Centre is a multi-disciplinary research centre housed within the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine dedicated to studying neurodevelopmental disorders and child mental health. The conference drew over 150 researchers, clinicians and students from across the university, Alberta Health Services, and the community. 

“As a centre, we are proud that the conference, now in its second year, is attracting such a wide range of people, particularly students and young researchers,” says Susan Graham, the director of the Owerko Centre and a professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts. “We can do better for kids and their families, and this conference showed that we are moving in the right direction.”

Growing awareness of mental health problem

Autism is now the fastest growing and most commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder in Canada, with approximately one in 60 children living with the condition. In addition, the Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that one in five Canadians will face a mental health problem in their lifetime, often developed in childhood. 

The keynote talks by Erik Willcutt, an associate professor and clinical psychologist from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Jonathan Weiss, an associate professor and clinical psychologist from York University, emphasized the multi-dimensional nature of mental health among children and youth. They both emphasized collaboration among researchers as a key to understanding these disorders and finding new therapies to help children thrive.

Conference is a springboard for new ideas

“We hope this conference, and future ones, can serve as a springboard for people to get inspired and think about how their own work might fit into improving the lives of children and families,” says Graham. “This conference is a great opportunity to shine a light on all of the great work that is currently being done around mental health and neurodevelopmental research and show how we can set kids up for success regardless of the neurodevelopmental conditions they may have.”

The Owerko conference provides recognition and support for early career investigators, awarding trainees who provide the most comprehensive and original presentation of their research during the conference. The third annual Owerko Conference will be held in spring of 2018.      

Led by the HBI, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals.