Duke Center for Autism Stays Closely Connected in a Year of Distancing


Although the pandemic locked us into a “year of social distancing,” the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development stayed closely connected to our community partners and to the autism community, coordinating our popular, public events and special programs, and initiating engaging professional development opportunities.

Music 2 the Max!

Filming Music 2 the Max! episode
Music 2 the Max! features live interactions and fun, short videos.

The center brought its popular, public special events to the virtual platform, including Music 2 the Max! 2020, attended by more than 250 people across the globe. In collaboration with music educator William Dawson from Duke Arts & Health and a crew from Duke Technical Services, the center coordinated the free, month-long series featuring live welcome and closing events and three video episodes. In each, viewers participated in sing-alongs, learned the “science of sound,” and made musical instruments with common household items. 

Holiday Greeting Art Gallery & Contest

Dozens of artists on the autism spectrum and their family members submitted artwork for the Duke Center for Autism 2020 Holiday Greeting Art Gallery & Contest. Artwork was featured on the Duke Center for Autism website in the Holiday Art Gallery. Ten-year old artist Bailey’s artwork, “Let it Snow,” was selected to illustrate the center’s digital holiday greeting card.

Autism Acceptance Month

Morenike Giwa Onaiwu with her children
Morenike Giwa Onaiwu presented our Autism Acceptance Month keynote address

Each April, during the United Nations Autism Awareness/ Acceptance Month, the Duke Center for Autism joins with the global community to celebrate neurodiversity. At its featured event on April 7, 2021, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu inspired hundreds of participants with her deeply personal story, sharing her experience as a Black autistic woman, global activist, teacher, and mother of autistic children. Onaiwu encouraged her audience to embrace the diversity of the autism community, explaining, “All autism is ‘real’ autism… Autism is a spectrum, and there is always more than one story to tell. There are dangers in a single story, because there is always more than one story to share and understand.” The center’s #celebrateneurodiversities social media campaign featured Duke Men’s Basketball Coach Krzyzewski, senior members of the Duke University leadership team, autism self-advocates, and the center’s staff and faculty. Throughout Autism Awareness/ Acceptance Month, Duke Center for Autism staff and faculty shared their expertise and advice across multiple community events and national news platforms. The video “What is Autism,” produced by Duke University Communications in collaboration with the Duke Center for Autism, was featured by the YouTube platform on World Autism Awareness Day, April 2nd, and has been viewed more than 380,000 times.

Law Enforcement Sensory Bags and Interaction Training

Group of people with police officers in conference room
The Center for Autism team presented training to help promote positive interactions with autistic people to the Town of Holly Springs.

Interactions with law enforcement and school resource officers can be stressful to autistic children who need a high level of support. In collaboration with the Brady Valcho Autism Foundation, several Duke Center for Autism clinical research specialists and clinicians, including Dr. Marika Coffman, Jessica Summers, Sarah Sipe, Allie Lerner, and Saskia Bock, presented resource officers in the Town of Holly Springs with training and specially designed sensory kits to promote positive engagements with autistic students and community members. The sensory kits and accompanying training will serve as a model to expand the project to other municipal law enforcement departments.

Autism Speaker Series

The center offered seven monthly virtual sessions in its 2020-2021 Autism Speaker Series, featuring leading investigators, clinicians, and practitioners impacting autism research, interventions, and treatments. 

Triangle Run/Walks

The Duke Center for Autism teams raised nearly $9,000 combined for the Autism Society of North Carolina “Triangle Run/ Walk for Autism” and the “Triangle Autism Speaks Walk,” which support the two nonprofits providing services, programs, and community engagement to North Carolinians affected by autism.

Neurodiversity in the Workplace Public Panel Discussion

Duke Neurodiversity Connections, a campus-wide initiative that aims to raise awareness and create a community of support for students who identify as neurodiverse, along with the Duke University Career Center, hosted “Neurodiversity in the Workplace,” an event featuring panelists’ perspectives on navigating job interviews and transition to the workforce. Dozens of students, faculty, and staff attended, as well as employers and corporate representatives who are working to enhance and improve their inclusive recruiting, training, and retention efforts.