2020 Pat Summitt Award funds slated to support Vanderbilt Kennedy Center autism research

David Williams smiling

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) researcher Carissa Cascio, Ph.D., is the recipient of a $10,000 honorarium from the 2020 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) President’s Pat Summitt Award. Cascio was chosen to receive the honorarium by Gail Williams, recently retired associate director of Vanderbilt University’s Government and Community Relations and wife of the late David Williams II, former Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director at Vanderbilt University.

Gail Williams

David Williams is the fourth recipient of the award, named in recognition of the late Pat Summitt, former head coach of the University of Tennessee Knoxville Women’s Basketball program. Gail Williams, accepted the award on her late husband’s behalf in January at the NCAA Convention in Anaheim, California.

The award recognizes an individual in the NCAA’s membership who has demonstrated devotion to the development of college athletes and has made a positive impact on their lives.

In August 2011, Pat Summitt announced that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. Shortly after, she created the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund, with proceeds going toward research for cognitive diseases. As a result, Pat Summitt Award recipients receive a $10,000 honorarium to donate to the organization of the honoree’s choice that combats or researches neurological diseases or disorders of the brain.

The Williams family have a personal connection to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, as their niece and nephew both received autism services and participated in research through the VKC.

“This was in the nineties, when autism was just beginning to be talked about, and particularly in Black communities, where it wasn’t talked about very much,” said Gail Williams. “So the VKC became a steady resource for my sister, to help her as she was trying to navigate this new life for her children. So for that reason, the Kennedy Center has always been very special to me, especially the research that they’re doing to create opportunities for families of children with autism to be able to thrive.”

For years, the Williamses have been strong supporters of the VKC, with Gail serving on the VKC’s Community Advisory Council, and David raising money for a playground at the Susan Gray School and recruiting Vanderbilt student athletes to volunteer in the assembly.

“The Kennedy Center does great work and support communities that are often overlooked. It was a natural fit for me to come to them when I had the opportunity to donate to brain research.”

After meeting with VKC senior administration to discuss potential recipients whose work was within the scope of the Pat Summitt Award, Williams chose to allocate the honorarium toward sensory research being conducted by Carissa Cascio, who serves as associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.

Cascio’s research will focus on interoception in autism spectrum disorders; in other words, how sensory experiences are interpreted inside the body.

“It’s like, how does your brain register your heart beating in your body, if you’re not using your typical cues such as checking your pulse?” Cascio said. “It’s easy to sense your heartbeat after strenuous exercise, but your brain can register those quieter ongoing signals with or without conscious awareness.”

Interoception can be correlated to instances of anxiety and emotions, so this work is able to build upon previous autism research. This particular study will address whether sensory “noise” might interfere with emotional processing within those on the autism spectrum. Further research of the connections between ASD and anxiety might lead to more targeted therapeutic interventions.

“We are sincerely appreciative of the longstanding relationship the Kennedy Center has shared with the Williams family, and we are honored that Gail has chosen Carissa and her continually impactful autism research as the beneficiary of her husband’s Pat Summitt Award honorarium,” said VKC director Jeff Neul, M.D., Ph.D. “Support like this will definitely increase the breadth of this research and, in turn, potentially increase the impact it can have on families in our area.”

The funds from Williams’ Pat Summitt Award honorarium have been earmarked for increased access to MRI and EEG technologies, as well as supporting research personnel who have experience working with individuals with disabilities to mitigate stress or fear of the EEG cap or the MRI machine.

“I think it’s awesome that this money can help reach more families and help them decide what’s the best care for their child,” said Williams. “My sister pointed out that these kinds of research opportunities weren’t around for her kids when they were young, and it’s amazing to see how access to MRIs and research that targets connectivity and how autism works can help the community. This money can be used to really maximize great outcomes for families and to allow families to have access to services that might not have been available to them.”

“We’re profoundly grateful to the Williams family for this opportunity, and we look forward to being able to conduct this kind of research with a broader swath of people on the spectrum than we’ve been able to before,” said Cascio.

“This will make such a huge difference, and that’s what meant the most to me,” added Williams. “Carissa’s passion and her intellect and her desire to go deeper are so inspiring. Families can have their children tested, and we can reach communities that might not have been reached before. It is really encouraging. Being able to support best outcomes for the right interventions to happen earlier, being able to support and find ways of simplicity for complex issues… it’s so satisfying.”

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.

Pictured top of page: (inset left) Carissa Cascio, Ph.D. and (right) David Williams II. Photo by Vanderbilt Athletics.

Giving Banner

This is a monthly email of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Notables published by the Communications staff of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Between issues of Notables, you can stay up to date on the latest Vanderbilt Kennedy Center news, information, and resources via the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Facebook page.