May 1, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 16

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    Amid whirlwind of activity, student finds her life's work

    So you think you're busy? Let's look at the schedule of Maureen Dunne, fourth-year student in the College:

    _ Dunne is completing coursework this year toward a double concentration in psychology and sociology, and, although she is not officially pursuing a third degree, she has taken enough courses for a public policy concentration as well. _ Her work is part of a combined B.A./M.A. program in psychology, and she will spend most of her time next year doing laboratory research.

    _ She is the co-founder and head of the Autism Society of Chicago, she serves on the board of directors of the Autism Society of Illinois, and she recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in an international conference on the rights of the disabled.

    _ She is organizing the first major march in Chicago to focus attention on education and health issues faced by the disabled.

    Oh, and she's also serving as an adviser to the new Bruce Willis film, Simple Simon, a thriller being filmed in Chicago this summer that features an autistic boy as one of its main characters.

    "Well, I guess I keep pretty busy," said Dunne, who was recently named one of USA Today's "Academic All-Americans."

    Finding a mission

    Dunne transferred to the University after two years at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. -- where she received three associates degrees while being technically over-enrolled each quarter. While there, she was named DuPage's Outstanding Female Graduate and was named to the First Team of Academic Scholars for Illinois.

    She also founded the college's mentor program, worked as a therapist for an autistic child while serving in a psychology internship and served as the president of the college's chapter of Psi Beta, the national psychology honor society.

    "I took my first psychology course in 1993 and began working with students at the same time," she said. "In both experiences, I became convinced that society -- including schools, employers, the government -- not only misrepresents people by labeling them as 'disabled' but also has inhibited their opportunities as well as restricted their civil right to an accessible and appropriate education. I found that the disabled needed more advocates.

    "Basically, I found my life's work."

    In pursuing her personal mission, Dunne developed her skills as a scholar and an activist within what she calls "a coherent philosophical framework" in which scholarship and human values co-exist.

    "It's obvious to me that scientific research, social policy and societal values are all intimately intertwined and influence one another," she said. "When I began doing research, however, I was really disturbed to find out that that the majority of existing autism research focuses on deficits rather than abilities.

    "I was frustrated, and I felt that I had to begin my own research to question these theories -- there really had to be another way to look at autism. There had to be a way to find alternative explanations for autistic abilities and mechanisms, as well as other methods for early intervention and education."

    One of her first research papers, "The Socialization of Autistic Children through Environmental Sensory Integration," received the third place award in the National Allyn/Bacon Research competition in 1995. She also received a 1996 Ford Foundation Research Fellowship to continue to search for conclusions that she hopes will help to solve the puzzle of autism.

    At Chicago, she is completing her master's thesis project by working at the Hospitals with the Developmental Disorders Clinic of the Autism Research Group, perhaps the leading research group in the United States studying autism. Dunne's thesis advisers are Catherine Lord, Professor in Psychiatry, and Amanda Woodward, Assistant Professor in Psychology. She is also working with Pastora San Juan Cafferty, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration.

    "These are the people whose research I read while studying at College of DuPage," she said. "It is amazing to me each time I enter the lab that I have the opportunity to work with them."

    Fighting for change Dunne plans to pursue her research in developmental psychopathology. She also has worked as a disability rights activist, following her belief that effective leadership means implementing ideas into direct action.

    "I have spent a lot of time working with all sorts of members of Chicago's autistic community," she said. "But it didn't take me long to recognize the need for a central organization to bring together parents, professionals and teachers as well as individuals with autism to exchange information," she said. "My response to this need was to help co-found the Autism Society of Chicago."

    The Autism Society serves as a clearinghouse for information on autism and related disabilities and is a counterpart to the more activist-oriented Autism Society of Illinois, Dunne said. Both organizations are working together to organize the first "March for Children with Disabilities," which will take place in Chicago in October 1997.

    "We are attempting to change the current education system for children with autism by supporting the implementation of a statewide reform program," she said. "At the national level, we are lobbying for the reauthorization of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act."

    Above all, Dunne is seeking "to touch the lives of others through my knowledge as well as my heart," she said.

    "Through all my work as a scholar and activist, I have tried to challenge not only scientific theories but also societal perceptions that deny the civil right of disabled children to an appropriate education," she said.

    "I feel that my efforts have had a significant impact on the lives of individuals with disabilities, but I can't emphasize enough that this is only the beginning."

    -- Jeff Makos