St. Amant receives international attention


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This article was published 02/02/2011 (4438 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Dr. Javier Ortega realized that he wanted to focus his research in psychology on behavioural analysis, he knew it would require some sacrifices, such as leaving his home in Spain.

“I would need to move to a place where there was a big program,” Ortega recalled.

That place ended up being Winnipeg, where Ortega moved in July to take a position at St. Amant Research Centre.

Ortega — who has a Ph.D in psychology and has published more than 35 articles on the field— said St. Amant is a well-known organization in the disabilities field thanks to the research that it’s been a part of.

“I was familiar with the name based on studies that have been conducted here in the past, but I didn’t really know much about (the organization),” he said.

Now, with his new position in Winnipeg — split between working at the St. Vital-based research centre and teaching at the University of Manitoba — Ortega is becoming a great deal more familiar with St. Amant.

Dr. Carl Stephens, president and CEO of St. Amant, said attracting someone with Ortega’s qualifications was a real boon for the centre.

“He brings not only his perspective as a scientist, but also the influence of his culture,” Stephens said. “Science benefits from diversity in thinking.”

Ortega has already started to obtain funding for two research projects.

The first will have strong implications for the clients of St. Amant, a not-for-profit organization that provides a variety of programs and services to individuals with developmental disabilities and autism.

The psychologist plans on testing different types of interventions to help people living with disabilities who also suffer from anxiety disorders.

“We have a number of strategies to improve things like . . . academic skills or social skills or language,” he explained. “We do not know so much about how to be effective with these sort of (anxiety) problems.”

Considering that up to 80% of children with autism may be affected by an anxiety disorder, Ortega said this research could have a significant impact on the quality of life of those living with disabilities.

“There’s evidence to suggest that clients who have these kinds of problems are less likely to benefit from other kinds of interventions,” he added.

Ortega’s second research project may have less immediate effects on individual lives, but he said it is no less important.

“The (project) is trying to look at specific skills that we know are very influential in later development,” he said, explaining this is the basis for a methodology called Applied Behaviour Analysis, which St. Amant uses to help autistic individuals learn skills and behaviours they haven’t been able to pick up on their own.

The research will use a powerful MRI machine to help determine what effect these skills have.

“We will be looking at how the brain changes before and after some of these skills are acquired,” Ortega said.

‘This kind of research is basically new. There’s none out there, combining the human intervention with neural imaging. We are basically grasping a new field.”

He added he’s not discouraged by the fact this second project won’t have such obvious impacts immediately on the quality of life of disabled individuals.

“Science is usually a long-term endeavour. You see the results after many years,” he said.

Ortega is not the only international scholar taking interest in St. Amant.

This month, Dr. Luiz Freitas, a psychology professor from Centro Universitario de Lavras in Brazil, is in town to observe St. Amant’s Applied Behaviour Analysis program after learning about it through research.

“I’m very impressed by the ABA program here,” Freitas said, adding he would recommend the site to other psychologists interested in learning more about the methodology.  

Stephens said St. Amant officials are proud of the fact that the organization has gained such a credible reputation abroad.

“I think it says something about the impact that St. Amant and its research centre and the University of Manitoba are having in the disabilities field,” he said.

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