The African Regional International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) 2017

The African Regional International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR)
2017 was held at Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa. This event
represented the first regional IMFAR ever to be held in Africa and was hosted
in collaboration with the South African Association of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry and Allied professions (SA-ACAPAP). The theme of the Congress
was “Nurturing our Future” and the aim was to encourage the growth of Autism
research in a diverse range of cultures. Keynote speakers from around the
world, including several countries on our continent, led the discussion
regarding the effective translation of research into culturally appropriate
educational and clinical practice. This provided an exciting opportunity for all
conference attendees to present their own work, to generate and exchange
ideas, and, to foster collaborations and initiatives for further research in Africa.
The outcome was a truly successful meeting whereby researchers, clinicians,
educators and policy-makers came together in a joint effort to learn from each
other and, to identify the needs and priorities of children and families affected
by Autism. This served as a great inspiration for a multi-disciplinary approach
in addressing the challenges and responsibilities associated with the
understanding and acceptance of Autism in Africa.

Michelle Hoogenhout, myself (Jessica Ringshaw), Natalia Ing and Marina Lawrence were privileged to attend this distinguished event and proudly represented the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Psychology Department and ACSENT Laboratory.  We each presented our research in a panel discussion that was entitled: “The presentation and management of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in South Africa: Implications for multicultural and low-income settings.”  The symposium was chaired by A/Prof Kirsten Donald who is a Paediatric Neurologist at Red Cross Children’s hospital, a lecturer at UCT and a board member of Autism Western Cape.

Michelle Hoogenhout presented her research on “The physiology of social emotion: Empathy and heart rate variability in autism.” Her study investigated whether (1) resting heart rate variability is associated with autism traits in a multiracial sample, and whether (2) the regulation of heart rate variability is associated with empathic concern at low, moderate and high levels of autism traits. Michelle received an “Emerging researcher” award for this innovative research.

I presented the preliminary results of my Masters thesis on “The relationship between Theory of Mind (ToM) and moral decision-making within the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). My presentation discussed the difficulty that ASD children may have in translating empathic concern into empathic behaviour by using social information to guide the application of moral principles. Therefore, the aim was to provide insight into a prospective mechanism underlying an aspect of social impairment in this clinical group. The relevance of this ongoing study lies in its ability to aid peoples’ understanding of behaviour in Autism which is often misinterpreted and stigmatised in the social context.

Marina Lawrence presented her Masters Dissertation: “Screening for Autism Spectrum Disorders in a developmental clinic in the Western Cape: Using the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT).” Her research generated much enthusiasm as she discussed the first steps in validating the use of the M-CHAT in our low SES context. Additionally, results indicated positive prospects for future use in state clinics in the Western Cape, and ultimately South Africa. This may help achieve beneficial early diagnosis and intervention outcomes.

Natalia Ing discussed a component of her ongoing PhD study on “Service delivery for Autism Spectrum Disorder in South Africa.” Her study provides key in-depth information on the limitations of the services provided to individuals with ASD and their families within a Low and Middle Income Country (LAMIC) context. Based on Natalia’s analysis, several changes to service delivery could be made to improve quality of life for families with ASD. Therefore, the content of her presentation was relevant to the theme of the congress as well as the priorities of clinicians and academics across disciplines.

Presenting our symposium was a great experience and we believe our research was well received. We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity as well as for the supervision and mentorship we received from our departmental supervisors including Dr Susan Malcolm-Smith, Dr Kevin Thomas and Katie Hamilton. Overall, the Africa Regional IMFAR was rewarding in every sense and we look forward to the next one!

Left to right. Dr Michelle Hoogenhout, Jessica Ringshaw,  Natalia Ing, Marina Lawrence and Professor Kirsty Donald, who chaired the symposium.

© 2011-2017 Acsent: Department of Psychology University of Cape Town