VIDEO: UK Professor Hopes Research Helps Autism Advocacy

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 25, 2016) — Lisa Ruble, a professor in the University of Kentucky College of Education's Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology, has a palpable passion for what she studies: autism spectrum disorder (ASD).    

“For me, research has become advocacy,” Ruble said. “I am really interested in how we can improve services.” 

The former microbiologist admits she never even thought about becoming a professor, and definitely never dreamed that one day, her work would center on psychology. In fact she avoided any and all psychology classes during college.

“I thought psychology wasn’t really a science from research because of different theories regarding autism, and I had a personal connection with autism,” Ruble said.

Lisa has a younger sister with autism.  

“Back then the theory that was given as the cause of autism was due to the mother and the mother-child interaction, that the mother was rejecting the child and as a result the child withdrew within him or herself,” Ruble said. “So those were old behavioral theories but were still being espoused and I was really kind of taken aback and shocked.”

But once she was working as a microbiologist, curiosity drove her to actually sign up to take a psychology class on the side. 

“So that led me in the direction of reading more of the research in autism, taking information to the professor and then examining the other things going on in my own personal life with my sister, Leslie,” Ruble said.

That first class became the foundation for a new career.

“I went back and took a lot of classes in psychology one semester and I fell in love with it,” Ruble said. “Recognizing that we really didn’t have a lot of (autism) research, I went ahead and switched careers from microbiology into psychology of all things.”

She earned her master's degree in rehabilitative psychology. What she observed opened up her eyes. 

“You might have somebody with a disability but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a handicap,” Ruble said. “They can have an impairment so they might have some kind of challenge but with the right resources in the environment they can overcome that and be as much of a participant as anybody else, so that pushed me into asking how we could enhance the environment and provide more support from the environment to help people.”

As she worked to form an autism treatment program at Vanderbilt University and an autism outpatient program at the University of Louisville, she saw firsthand the many obstacles for families navigating autism.

“By seeing the challenges that families face in trying to get services, the challenges that teachers have in providing the best quality educational program, the challenges that service providers have in meeting the unique needs of children and adults with autism and how parents have to negotiate all these different things really kept pushing me into the area of services research and implementation science research in autism,” Ruble said. 

All of these clinical and personal experiences led her to collaborate with a former professor to land a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded project to study environment supports for autistic children inside schools. 

“So it was after that first (NIH) funding that really led me to think, ‘ok, maybe I am a researcher,’” Ruble said. 

Her work inside schools continues to center around the Collaborative Model for Promoting Competence and Success (COMPASS).

“My current research is focused on trying to really work with parents and teachers to develop meaningful goals for that student or that child with autism, develop intervention plans based on the goals, and then to support that teacher in the implementation of those plans before finally comparing the outcomes based on children who have COMPASS and those who do not.”

Watch the video above to understand what makes this type of research unique and why Ruble’s personal connection to autism continues to motivate her work. 

This video feature is part of monthly series called, "'see discovery': The People Behind Our Research." The videos, produced by UKNow and REVEAL, will highlight the important work being conducted at the University of Kentucky by telling the stories of our researchers. The idea is to discover and share what motivates our faculty, staff and students to ask the questions that lead to discovery. 

Since this is a monthly feature on UKNow, we invite you to submit future ideas. If you know of a researcher who you think should be featured, please email us

UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: #uk4ky #seeblue

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