Discoveries that improve human health and welfare
THE KU LIFE SPAN INSTITUTE brings together scientists and students at the intersections of education, behavioral science and neuroscience to study problems that directly affect the health and well-being of individuals and communities in Kansas, as well as across the nation and world.
investigators, students and staff
million awarded for research in FY2019
of improving human health and welfare
As a volunteer at an Olathe, Kan., nursing home, 19-year-old Isaac Swindler enjoyed helping people by escorting residents to the chapel, bringing them meals, and assisting with laundry. But when the nursing home was forced to limit the number of visitors to the facility in response to the spread of COVID-19, Isaac became one of the millions of Americans to lose his position – and his routine.
That sudden change to daily life can be difficult for anyone, but for someone like Isaac, who has autism spectrum disorder, it can be an extraordinary disruption, said Issac’s father, Sean Swindler. Individuals with autism often struggle with rapid, unpredictable changes to their routine, he said.
“Social distancing needs to happen to keep everybody safe, and we are absolutely in support of it,” Sean said. “However, it really is a challenge for kids with autism and their families because they're losing so many opportunities for interaction that can't be reproduced at home. In addition to the experience of being a parent of a child with autism, Sean is the director of community program development for the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training, or K-CART, a research center at the Life Span Institute. The center has been fielding questions about how to adjust as children’s access to opportunities is completely upended by stay-at-home orders, the closure of businesses, and converting school classrooms to online instruction. The center has created a list of COVID-19 resources for families.
We reached out to Associate Professor Rene Jamison, a licensed psychologist for the Center for Child Health and Development in Pediatrics at the KU Medical Center and an investigator at K-CART, for tips for parents who are navigating these changes
Findings: Omega-3 fatty acids
Few things are as important in a baby’s first year of life as nutrition – that’s a given. But new research suggests that increasing intake of an omega-3 fatty acid while pregnant has a positive effect on the fetus that continues to affect the child’s development years later.
A team of scientists at the KU Life Span Institute recently authored a study that showed that pregnant women who consumed a supplement of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a nutrient added to U.S. infant formulas since 2002, tend to have children with higher fat-free body mass at 5 years old. The findings of the experimental study, presented in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that improving maternal DHA nutrition has a favorable programming effect on the fetus that influences body composition in early childhood.
“DHA is a nutrient found in the highest concentrations in oily fish such as salmon and tuna, foods many Americans don’t eat a lot of, so they tend to get low intakes,” said Susan Carlson, professor in the Department of Dietetics & Nutrition in the School of Health Professions. “Because U.S. intakes are low and because DHA is highly concentrated in the brain where it increases dramatically in the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life, I have had a long interest in whether more of this nutrient is needed for optimal health during early development. DHA can be delivered to the fetus by increasing maternal intake during pregnancy and to the breast-fed infant by increasing maternal intake during lactation, which increases DHA in mothers’ milk.”
Program: Transition to Post-Secondary Education
When Noah Krueger came to KU in the fall of 2016, one of the first challenges to overcome was learning how the KU bus system worked. Like any KU freshman student unaccustomed to public transit, he struggled at first with figuring out which bus went where and when.
But two years after starting a program for students with intellectual disabilities, he can not only check off success at navigating the bus system, he said. He has completed two years of classes at KU and grown academically and socially – and he can teach other people how to ride the bus, too.
“The bus was a big deal,” Noah said. “But now I’ve learned living on my own, grocery shopping, budgeting, working, and living with friends.”
Noah is just one of the 18 students who are enrolled in or have completed a two-year certificate at KU through the Transition to Postsecondary Education program. Funded through a five-year federal grant to the Life Span Institute in 2015, and in collaboration with the KU School of Education, the program is the only one of its kind in Kansas that combines career development, academics and social skills for students with intellectual disabilities.
The 2019 freshman class in the program have diverse education backgrounds, experiences and interests, including working with children, athletics, musical theater, and interior design.
March 12, 6-7:30 pm: LEND Family Education Series Talk
Special Education: Parents' Rights & Responsibilities with Darla Nelson-Metzger of Families Together, Inc., at the Edwards Campus, Regnier Hall. Information here.
April 10, 8:30 am - 4 pm: KU Autism Conference
Autism Across the Life Span brings together community members, educators, therapists, service providers and researchers to focus on the brain, mental health, intervention, transition and self-advocacy during this one-day conference. Register here.
Some children in the U.S. grow up under severe disadvantage in terms of the amount and quality of language they are exposed to in their earliest years. Researchers have documented that some children are exposed to roughly 30 million fewer words than other children during years that are critical for learning language. Researchers call this the “word gap” and say it portends lifelong consequences.
Individuals with disabilities or who identify as LGBTQ+ often encounter difficulties in navigating the American health care system. A new study from the University of Kansas has found that people with autism spectrum disorder who identify as LGBTQ+ have greater health disparities than their peers, including being denied service or being told by doctors they couldn’t be transgender because autism would prevent them from understanding their own sexuality.