Published June 22, 2020

Understanding Autism

A Multifaceted Approach to Helping Adults on the Spectrum

Vanessa Hus Bal, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, conducts research to advance understanding of the aging population of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Emphasizing a lifespan perspective, her lab encompasses four broad research areas:

  • Defining meaningful achievements and specific needs of adults with ASD
  • Characterizing how ASD symptoms manifest across the range of cognitive and language abilities at developmental stages across the lifespan
  • Identifying behavioral, biological, and contextual factors that affect longer-term adult outcomes
  • Developing clinical services to support autistic adults

photo of vanessa hus balAcross these areas, research in the lab strives to develop and refine methods to assess and quantify individual strengths and challenges. This includes projects evaluating both biological and behavioral approaches that may be useful in screening and diagnosis, tracking symptoms across development, and evaluating response to treatment.

Bal works collaboratively with the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services, the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence, and other Rutgers schools to expand the university’s research and teaching related to adults with autism.

Bal earned a master’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Oxford and her doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan. She completed postdoctoral studies in human genetics at the University of California, San Francisco. She has been a principal investigator in research exploring a variety of issues relating to adults with autism, including examining the ways in which emotions are processed and the characteristics of minimally verbal adults. She has served in working group leadership positions for the International Meeting for Autism Research and the Interagency Autism Coordinating Center. She is the author of numerous peer-reviewed papers.

Dina Karmazin Elkins established the chair along with Michael Lillard, chief investment officer of Prudential Fixed Income, and his wife, Amy. They designated their support for a distinguished scholar to provide leadership in training students and preparing them to provide best practices service to adults with autism.

Approximately 1 in 59 children in the United States is diagnosed each year with an autism spectrum disorder. In New Jersey, the number is higher, with 1 in 34 children diagnosed.

In the Professor’s Own Words

Why did you choose this field of study?

At the time I joined this field more than 15 years ago, there were few services available for autistic individuals and research to advance understanding of autism in children was really just beginning to expand. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing individuals with autism and was really struck by the challenges their families faced to support their needs while also recognizing and celebrating their strengths.  I wanted to contribute to that understanding and, over time, became particularly interested in helping to advance knowledge of autism in adulthood.

How much better is our understanding of autism, compared to 10 years ago?

We have made great strides in understanding autism over the past 10 to 20 years. However, I think that with increased knowledge we also uncover more nuanced areas that we don’t yet understand as well, so more research is needed to improve the depth of our understanding (i.e., moving beyond awareness). In addition, I think we have done particularly well in helping increase understanding of autism in children, particularly young children being referred for early developmental concerns, but we need to shift more resources and attention to older individuals with autism.

What aspect of your work is most fulfilling?

I love to work with students and trainees. There are many unmet needs in our communities and I am excited to contribute to improved understanding of ASD, whether it be students specializing in psychology or related fields who will provide direct supports or students who may engage in completely different careers but are likely to interact with autistic adults in college, the workplace, or other community settings.


This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.