Pangelinan’s Research Combines Movement, Family, Developmental Disabilities

September 21, 2015


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Doctoral student Megan Irwin (left) and Dr. Melissa Pangelinan

Dr. Melissa Pangelinan, Assistant Professor in the School of Kinesiology, is the co-director of the Pediatric Movement and Physical Activity Lab. The lab seeks to better understand how movement ability and physical activity participation affect brain and physical development in children and adolescents – particularly those with developmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and other developmental disabilities. The lab is working to develop age-appropriate interventions that will promote physical activity participation, which will in turn impact the long-term development of brain and physical health in those with and without movement difficulties.

A key component of this effort is a free monthly seminar in the lab for parents of children with developmental disabilities. In collaboration with Lee County Autism Resource & Advocacy and Lee County Special Olympics, these seminars link parents with experts in movement science, education, psychology, and medicine. The seminars are held the third Thursday of each month at the School of Kinesiology, which is located at 301 Wire Road in Auburn.

“We have many people involved in these seminars, including our families, researchers, clinicians, and volunteers,” Pangelinan said. “We are working hard to build a community for our families right here in our area. At present, most of this type of research and activity takes place in Birmingham. Our families need this local resource very badly.”

The first seminar in September welcomed approximately 60 parents and 75 children, along with a dozen or so researchers and 40 volunteers, most of whom were Kinesiology undergraduate and graduate students. The next seminar is scheduled for October 22nd from 6:30 – 7:30pm.

“We have many dedicated volunteers, who are interested in physical therapy, occupational therapy, special education, and adapted physical education. As such we are able to keep a ratio of one volunteer for every two children. As our program grows, we will recruit additional volunteers to maintain a similar level of support for each child or teen,” Pangelinan said.

During the monthly meetings, invited speakers discuss topics of interest to parents while the children engage in age- and ability-appropriate movement activities facilitated by Kinesiology student volunteers.

“Alice Buchanan and her students’ expertise in adaptive physical education is a great help in working with these kids,” Pangelinan said. “Mary Rudisill and her students have also helped us develop great activities for the younger children.”

Pangelinan was part of a similar and successful effort in her doctoral work at the University of Maryland, which was supported by several grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The support group for parents at Maryland focused on three basic issues: getting support in school, understanding the impact of the disabilities on siblings and parents, and helping to promote physical activities for the whole family. She hopes to have a similar focus in her Kinesiology lab at Auburn.

“I watched the children in my graduate research at Maryland grow up into teenagers and encounter a whole host of new issues. My post-doc work in Toronto allowed me to understand those adolescent issues,” she said. “I learned a lot about the changes that are happening from childhood to adolescence, but saw a need to connect that research to help families. I saw two distinct needs, which we here at Auburn have a great opportunity to address. First, we will be able to translate our lab work on movement and the brain to the real world. Secondly, we will create a community between parents, educators, clinicians, and researchers to support and enrich families.”

Regardless of the disability, there are similar concerns and problems for the families, Pangelinan believes. They almost always share the same pediatricians, physical therapists, and clinicians, but lack meaningful support and community. She hopes this effort can address those deficits right here in East Alabama.

Collaborations are key

Pangelinan is supported in her efforts by Kinesiology doctoral student Megan Irwin, whose Master’s work was in disability studies and her dissertation is on autism. Irwin was an integral part of bringing together the initial group seminar event since Pangelinan is new to Auburn. Pangelinan also sees natural collaborations between her lab and College of Education colleagues such as Doris Hill and Vanessa Hinton, both of whom have strong commitments to working with young people with disabilities.

“There is so much that we need to understand about children and teens with disabilities,” Pangelinan said. “The different areas of expertise in the School of Kinesiology can help us create an integrated perspective on the importance of physical activity in those with developmental disabilities. For example, Bruce Gladden and Jim McDonald are interested in oxygen utilization in exercise. Danielle Wadsworth uses physical activity interventions, including mindfulness training, to promote health in families. John Quindry has been studying diet-related factors to prevent symptoms in children with muscular dystrophy. And these are just a few examples!”

In order for the outreach and research programs to be successful, Pangelinan needs to determine if they have the necessary commitment from area families to build a sufficient community. She also needs to win grant support for her projects, based on the NIH model she was part of in Maryland. If support is available, Pangelinan wants to expand the model to host a three-week day camp in the summer. The camp would focus on key areas of difficulty: riding a bike, swimming, and mindfulness training, which is an area of growing importance in managing emotional and attention difficulties.

“We have unique experience in these areas and parents really want help to develop these important skills in their children,” Pangelinan said. “But to do these things we must find grant or financial support.”

If the camp comes to fruition Pangelinan knows she will need volunteers, but also hopes to count on the enormous talent that could come from the College of Education’s early childhood, special ed, and rehab and disability programs.

“The most important thing we must do is show families that what we are doing works for them,” she said. “The need is there and the expertise is here. Now it’s up to us to build this community.”