Posted by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D.
It was 1980, and I was a clinical intern at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, under the mentorship of the pioneering autism researcher Marian Sigman. I had just received a letter (yes, we actually mailed letters in those days) from a prestigious journal letting me know that the paper I had submitted, based on my doctoral dissertation, was rejected. I distinctly remember the phrase “more like a pilot study.” Discouraged and feeling pessimistic about my professional prospects, I mentioned the rejection to Marian.
She said, “Geri, there are two things you will need to have a successful career as a scientist: ego resilience and tenacity.” Ego resilience – in other words, I’d better develop “thick skin.” I recalled those words frequently throughout my career, whenever a grant application or paper was rejected or the data from an experiment turned out so poorly that I thought we would never make progress. I also repeated those words frequently to my own students and postdocs - as recently as a month ago, when one of my students failed to receive a much-anticipated fellowship.
During that inspiring year as Marian’s intern, we had many discussions about autism. Marian and I were both trained as developmental psychologists and, together, we pondered the fundamental early developmental skills affected in autism. I argued that imitation was the core difficulty, whereas Marian focused on how young children with autism failed to point or show things to others. From this observation, Marian and her colleagues went on to conduct the first studies to demonstrate autism’s impairment of “joint attention” – a new concept at the time.
Over her long career of careful developmental research, Marian not only defined the now widely accepted early diagnostic signs of autism, she also demonstrated the critical role of joint attention in language development and early intervention.
Marian and her colleagues conducted one of the first careful longitudinal studies of autism. It emphasized the important role that interaction with typical peers plays in the successful long-term outcomes of those affected by autism. Toward the latter part of her career, Marian and her colleagues were also the first to study the infant siblings of children with autism, opening a new era of research that continues to shed light on autism’s early risk factors and developmental course. These are just a few of her many seminal contributions.
Marian mentored many of today’s leaders in autism research. She was an extremely generous teacher and colleague. Over the past two decades, Marian led UCLA’s autism research programs as director of the National Institutes of Health’s Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA), Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART), and Autism Center of Excellence (ACE). She served as the first elected president of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) and received the INSAR Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other honors.
Marian died on April 30, 2012. We will miss Marian sorely but take comfort in knowing that her legacy will continue in her impact on our field and on the work of the many researchers and clinicians she influenced.