Bringing Hope and Help to People with Autism

The mother of an autistic child changed Rob Ring’s life. A neuroscientist developing psychiatric medicine and studying oxytocin, he was invited to speak at a conference on autism research. A woman approached him immediately afterwards and said, “I have no idea what you talked about for the last half hour, but you’re the first person from the pharmaceutical industry to present at this meeting. I’m the mother of a son with autism, and the thought that there might be medicine to help autism means the world to me.” Two similar encoun-ters made a powerful impact on Rob. “I went into a deep dive to understand autism, why the industry has ignored it, and what I could do to help,” he says. “My work today is the culmination of conversations with moms. They are my heroes, and they continue to inspire me and be my compass, telling me where my work needs to go.”

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Ring Family

Rob, a 1990 Westmont graduate, serves as chief science officer of Autism Speaks, an organization that funds autism research. “I wake up every day thinking about how we put science and technology to work for families to improve the quality of life and health of people living with autism,” he says. A double major in biology and art, he earned a doctorate in molecular neurobiology from the City of Hope in Duarte, Calif. He developed psychiatric medicines at Wyeth Research in Princeton, N.J., before becoming senior director and head of the autism research unit at Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development in Groton, Conn. He led the first dedicated research group in industry focused on medicines for neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically autism. He joined Autism Speaks in 2011 as vice president of translation research and moved into his current position in 2013.

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Harris Family

Jennifer Root Wilger ’91 and Amy Hunt Harris ’91 both have sons with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Jen co-founded Temple Grandin School (TGS) in Boulder, Colo., and is the executive director. She earned a master’s degree in early childhood development and a special education license, and she helps develop individual learning plans at TGS. In 2014, she won a People First award from the Colorado Special Education Advisory Committee.

Amy lives near Salem, Ore., with her husband, Rick, a qualified plan consultant, and their two sons. She earned a master’s degree in piano performance and pedagogy but chooses for now to be a stay-at-home mother and wife. She teaches a small studio of piano students and plays piano for church services and community events.

Rob listens to parents like Jen and Amy to understand and identify unmet needs. For example, he asks if medicine could help improve sleep or reduce GI symptoms for people with autism. Could a molecular test identify an individual’s risk for autism? What are the most effective behavioral interventions? Which iPad app is best at improving communication? “The people on the other end of the phone do so much to shape our investment,” he says.

Students and families at TGS are most interested in interventions that improve social communication and executive function skills, Jen says. Amy identifies a specific issue for her son: sensory challenges with touch. “He can’t stand having sunscreen put on his skin,” she says. “When he was little, he would choose to stay inside and not interact with others rather than apply sunscreen.”

Autism affects each person differently, Rob says. “Sensory differ-ences come in all kinds of colors. We need to determine what is different from person to person. What is the basic brain circuitry common to sensory issues? Focusing research on better understanding the basic biology of and the roles the environment and genetics play can help us develop better diagnoses and interventions.”

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Wilger Family

Jen believes early inter-vention is important. “We were fortunate to get a diagnosis before age 3,” she says. “We see how it benefits students.” Now 18, her son is a sopho-more in college. Amy says her son’s diagnosis was “a huge relief. He was our first child, and we just assumed he was strong-willed and quirky. I did a ton of reading and research and learned to be more patient.”

Both teenagers have attended small schools—Jen’s at TGS and Amy’s at a Christian school. “My son is doing so well, which I attribute to our supportive community,” Amy says. “A circle of support is so important,” Jen says. “The consistent presence of caring adults in my son’s life makes a huge difference.”

As Jen made decisions about her son’s education, she kept thinking about Westmont and what she learned through relationships with professors and students. “A transformative community fosters learning and under-standing, and I want that for my son and my students,” she says. Amy says learning to think critically and creatively from professors who knew her name has prepared her for a child with ASD.

Autism affects millions of people, keeping many from working or contributing to society. Jen seeks to educate the church and the world about the condition. “How do we pave the way for our students?” she asks. “How do we help the church understand?”

All three note the need to overcome myths. “All individuals with ASD have unique gifts, but few are savants like the character in ‘Rain Man,’” Rob says. “As a scientist, I deplore the persistent belief that vaccines cause autism despite a compelling body of evidence to the contrary. And people with ASD aren’t violent despite media portrayals.”

Jen and Amy talk about the role of faith in their lives. “The sovereignty of God shapes how we see our son’s diagnosis,” Amy says. “He was designed for great things, and it’s our job to help capture his gifts for Christ.” Jen realizes that God has used her various experi-ences to lead her to TGS. “It’s a confirmation of my calling,” she says.

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