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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Renowned autism expert joins MIND Institute, School of Education

By appointing a renowned expert in education and social issues for children with high-functioning autism, UC Davis officials aim to make the university a leader in the field.

Developmental and clinical psychologist Peter Mundy brings over 25 years of experience to his dual post as the Lisa Capps chair for neurodevelopmental disorders and education in the UC Davis School of Education and director of educational research at the UC Davis MIND Institute.

In addition, he has been appointed as a professor in the UC Davis School of Education and as director of education research for the MIND Institute.

In a telephone interview, Mundy sought to dispel some misconceptions about autism.

Most often people think that autism is associated with mental retardation and that [those] children have very low IQs, but 40 to 60 percent of children with autism have IQs in normal range, Mundy said. They appear very different, and they can do all the work that you need to do in work or college, but they simply don’t understand other people’s interests, changes in routine or how to interact with other people.

Mundy said he became interested in neurodevelopment disorders in children when he was a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA from 1981 to 1985. After working in psychiatric inpatient units, Mundy said he found a field to which he could dedicate his life’s work.

I got interested in working with [children with autism] and trying to make their lives better and also trying to understand what the problems were, he said.

After serving as a professor in psychiatry at UCLA from 1985 to 1991, Mundy returnedto the University of Miami, where he had received his doctorate in 1981.

But Mundy said he liked living in California and was more than willing to return because of the prestige of UC Davis’ MIND Institute.

Dean of the UC Davis School of Education Harold Levine said the university was just as eager to gain Mundy’s expertise.

UC Davis is incredibly fortunate to have such an esteemed scholar and enthusiastic partner in our efforts to better serve children with autism in a variety of educational settings, said Levine in an e-mail interview. He is a nationally respected researcher in this field.

MIND Institute executive director Robert Hendren said Mundy will advance collaboration with the School of Education.

We’re delighted to have Peter’s help in strengthening the bonds between the MIND Institute and the School of Education, said Hendren in a UC Davis news release. We are dedicated to learning as much as we can about neurodevelopment, and we look forward to Peter’s valuable assistance in translating that knowledge into such broad settings as clinics, medical facilities, teacher training and classrooms.

Hendren did not return a message from The California Aggie for further comment by press time.

The School of Education has collaborated with the UC Davis MIND Institute to research learning and mind sciences, Mundy said.

A group of five to six faculty [members] will be trying to understand how people learn on an environmental basis and the basis of brain processes, he said.

Levine said such cross-disciplinary work sets UC Davis apart from other institutions.

The collaboration among the School of Education, MIND Institute and St. HOPE [Academy] is unique for its focus on the integration of education, neurodevelopmental research and community participation, he said.

Levine said Mundy will work with the Triumph Center for Early Childhood Education, a preschool established in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento for research into the learning processes of children under 6 years of age.

[The preschool] serves children who are from culturally and linguistically underrepresented minority populations, particularly in need of early literacy and school readiness programs, said Levine.

Mundy’s work also focuses on joint-attention impairment, or in the inability of an individual to pay attention to the focus of another individual, he said.

Imagine a 5-year-old going into kindergarten, Mundy said. The teacher might say, ‘Pay attention.’ The child has to line up [his or her] visual attention at what the teacher’s looking at.

Though Mundy’s primary research interest in the first phase of his career was neurodevelopment disorders in young children, in 2000, he said he shifted his focus to high-functioning autism in older children.

As a result, Mundy said he also hopes to garner funding for a virtual reality lab to help older children with high-functioning autism acclimate to classroom settings. In the lab, Mundy said children would wear goggles and be in a virtual classroom with avatars of teachers and peers to help them respond to nonverbal communication.

For more information about research at the MIND Institute, go to www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/mindinstitute.


PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at campus@californiaaggie.com.


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