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MU Thompson Center's new director focused on research, helping families

Monday, November 12, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:13 a.m. CST, Monday, November 12, 2012
Stephen Kanne, the executive director of the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, works in his office Thursday at the MU Thompson Center. The center provides clinical services and research in autism, particularly with children and young adults.

COLUMBIA — Stephen Kanne was there when the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders opened in 2005.

He spent about six years working as a researcher and psychologist at the center before leaving in 2011 to become director of the Texas Children's Hospital Autism Center.

Thompson Center at a glance

Autism: a genetic disorder that causes impairments in social and communication skills and restricted and repetitive behaviors

Symptoms in diagnosing autism: impairments in social relationships, ability to communicate and restricted or repetitive behaviors

The Thompson Center is the largest center in Missouri specializing in autism disorders and other developmental disorders. It is at 205 Portland St. in Columbia.

In 2011, more than 10,000 patients were seen there.

This year, more than 7,800 people from communities across Missouri and the Midwest have participated in outreach training and education programs this year. 

Three hundred MU students received professional training at the center during 2007 and 2008.

The Thompson Center is a partner in three major research networks: Autism Treatment Network, Simons Simplex Collection and Interactive Autism Network.

Source: Thompson Center's website.


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In September, Kanne, 49, returned to the Thompson Center, this time as its executive director. 

He calls the center his second home. Photographs of his two children are propped on his desk. People are familiar. He knows the place so well he can pinpoint the minute changes that occurred during his 17-month absence. 

The following excerpts are drawn from a longer interview with Kanne about his return, his goals for the Thompson Center and where autism research is heading.

How did you get involved with autism research?

I’ll never forget the experience. I completed the first part of my internship in San Diego working at a children’s psychiatric hospital where we were learning how to do therapy with children with psychiatric problems. My background is in clinical neuropsychology, a branch of clinical psychology, which includes doing therapy.

That’s when I saw my first child with autism. He had a more severe presentation. He couldn’t talk; he had cards that he used to help him communicate. I remember seeing him and being very fascinated with him.

One of my colleagues had a specialty working with kids with autism. She was like a kid whisperer. She could get this child to manage his behavior using behavioral techniques really effectively. It just seemed like magic to me. So that was my first, like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool’ moment.

What has made you stick with the autism field for research and clinical work?

How many jobs can you have where you go home at the end of the day and think, ‘Wow, I really made a difference in someone’s life?' That happens to me all the time here.

You can work with a family and their child to figure out what's going on and how to help them. When they go home, although it's often painful because of the diagnosis, you know that if you did your job right; you've really helped them. 

That is an amazing feeling. Also, I have so much respect for the parents of these kids. I don’t know why that resonates with me more in autism compared to other populations.

It is these kids — how they can be simply amazing but at the same time they can be incredibly challenging — and realizing what that puts the family through. It's how that, even despite their lack of emotional reciprocity and response, their parents still love them just as much as any other kid. It hits you in a place, it really does.

Another reason I love working with the kids is because they’re hard to figure out. To be able to say whether a child has autism or not is a behavioral diagnosis. That means my skill in watching their behavior, seeing how they react to things and being good at specific tests we use allows me to make a more accurate diagnosis. It’s like a puzzle, but it is a puzzle that has a huge benefit at the end of it because you can really help the family.

Why did you decide to come back to the Thompson Center?

I came back for a couple of reasons. One of them was that this place was already amazing. That’s a big part of it. Second, I am from St. Louis, so it’s nice to come back home. I loved Texas while I was there, but it’s just not the same in terms of the seasons. And I hate country music. It’s both the potential this place has, plus the personal connections I have here that made it an easy choice.

Did you notice any differences between when you left and when you came back?
It was neat to go away and come back for two reasons. I had a much more objective view of how people viewed the Thompson Center. Also, I noticed how it grew and matured as an organization. Organizations grow and mature just like kids do.

Do you have any specific changes you want to make as the executive director of the Thompson Center?
Part of my goal is figuring out what we can do to expand our stamp even further in terms of our reputation and in terms of our footprint. We are really well-known in central Missouri. But outside of that, what can we do to make a bigger impact? Part of what we are looking at is how we can expand our clinical and research models to extend them to have a greater national impact.

Will you continue to do research and clinical work in your new position?
Absolutely, I will do both. Obviously this job includes a lot more than just that now, but I can’t imagine doing what I do here without seeing the kids and seeing the families. That is what I love to do the most. Research is always ongoing. For me, those complement each other. To be a good clinician, you have to be able to do research. Even as a researcher, you have to know the kids really well. They go hand-in-hand to me.

What do you think is the most promising aspect of autism research, and how do you plan to further that at the Thompson Center?
Our holy grail is to figure out what is causing autism. Once you know that, then you can be much more focused on how to treat autism. Right now, there is no cure for autism. If we understand better what is actually causing autism at its root level, at its genetic level, that will give us a much better chance at understanding it and understanding how to treat it appropriately.

That science of genetics is growing so quickly. All across the country people are researching genetics and not only for autism. The tools and techniques are just exploding. That is the most exciting piece.

At the Thompson Center, we have more than 30 research projects going on, ranging from genetics and mouse models all the way to virtual worlds on the computer and other studies that explore behaviors related to autism. We cover the full gamut. They call it bench to bedside, from basic science to studying behaviors out in the real world.

Do you face any challenges working in a learning institution?
There is much more emphasis on teaching and training and working with students, and having professionals move along beyond doctors. I love it, but there is a culture that comes with an academic institution, which is both good and bad.

Academic institutions tend to be more independent. Change can be more difficult because it takes longer to make things happen. There might be more bureaucracy or resistance to change. On the flip side, the mission of an academic institution is different because it emphasizes teaching and training and serving any and all people coming to it for help.

What do you think the Thompson Center needs to work on?
As a patient, the wait list can be too long. Parents want their child seen tomorrow. We are doing everything in our power to decrease the time it takes to get someone in here. The better and better you get, the more your reputation grows and the busier you get.

It's this Catch-22 we are stuck in. We want to figure out how we can see patients more efficiently and how we can match the right provider with the right patient to get their question answered better, which will improve the wait list. We are always working on this. 

What kind of mark do you personally want to leave on the Thompson Center?
The only footprint I want to make personally is make sure I facilitate getting the center to the next level. What does that mean for me as a leader? I need to make sure I support the people around me, getting out of their way, but giving them all of the resources to do what they need to do best.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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