Queen’s researcher earns Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation

Maude Champagne, Mitacs Award Winner. Photo via Mitacs.

Maude Champagne, a PhD researcher working under the supervision of Professor James Reynolds in the neuroscience department at Queen’s University, was recognized for her efforts to fill a gap in Canadian support services for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

After a routine survey assessing the needs of people accessing support programs for their children living with neurodevelopmental disabilities revealed an unexpected finding — an increase in dangerous behaviours at home during the pandemic — Champagne decided to take action, according to a release from Mitacs, a national innovation organization that fosters growth by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

Thanks to her work, three innovative support services are coming to the caregiver community: Canada’s first-ever nonviolent resistance (NVR) therapy program, the first National Consortium on Aggression Toward Family/Caregivers in Childhood and Adolescence (AFCCA), and a brand new AFCCA Family Support Program.

The groundbreaking work has earned Champagne the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation—PhD. The award was presented at a ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

According to the release, Champagne was recognized for revealing a pattern of unmet needs for families serving as caregivers, and playing an instrumental role in bringing groups together to devise solutions. As a mother of five children, four who live with neurodevelopmental disabilities, Champagne is uniquely positioned to understand the daily challenges facing the caregiver community, Mitacs said.

“We knew at the start of the pandemic that caregivers were burnt out, so we thought we’d do a survey about services to make sure their needs were being met, and as part of that we asked how they were managing during COVID,” said Champagne, who interviewed families throughout the spring of 2020.

“To our surprise, the most notable finding was that they were willing to open up about aggression towards family members, and how it was aggravated by lockdowns,” she said.

The survey — conducted through Champagne’s collaboration with Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN) and ABLE2, a not-for-profit organization that provides disability support services — pointed to an increase in daily verbal and physical aggression, with some families disclosing they had been threatened by their child with a knife or sharp object, or punched while driving, according to Mitacs. When they went to their local emergency room for help, the organization said that families were often told to return home because the hospital didn’t have capacity to treat their child.

“Sometimes they had no choice but to call Child Protective Services to say ‘come and get my child,’ and that’s the last thing they want,” explained Champagne. “Right away, we knew we had to do something.”

When she couldn’t find applicable resources in Canada, Mitacs said that Champagne looked abroad and discovered NVR, an innovative form of systemic family therapy which is widely used in the U.K. to manage aggressive, violent, controlling, and self-destructive behaviour in young people. KBHN quickly rolled out a pilot program and, by the fall of 2020, interested families were participating in the 13-week intervention.

Next, she forged a collaboration between KBHN and Adopt4Life, an Ontario association for adoptive parents and caregivers, to fund and host a national consortium on AFCCA. The consultation brought together experts from across Canada, including people with lived experience, academia, policy makers, and representatives from the Public Health Agency of Canada, and resulted in further research to identify challenges arising for young people who show aggressive behaviour.

Based on those additional findings, which revealed escalating mental health issues, barriers to belonging at school and in community, strained family relationships and, in some cases, having to live separately from their families, Champagne is now working with Adopt4Life to build Ontario’s first AFCCA Family Support Program from scratch. Parents and caregivers who need help can access resources by registering on Adopt4Life’s existing Parent2Parent Support Network.

“We’re trying to improve the quality of life of both the caregiver and the child, for everyone in the family to be safe both physically and emotionally,” said Champagne, who hopes to see all three initiatives continue to grow.

Mitacs’ support was key to the rapid deployment of interventions, she added. “What’s often missing in research is the collaboration with community organizations on the ground, which is why it often takes a decade or longer for findings to be implemented as solutions.”

“Mitacs bridges that gap. Because I was already partnered with a community organization, people knew me and I quickly gained the trust of the caregivers I interviewed. If they didn’t choose to open up, these supports wouldn’t be in place today,” Champagne said.

The Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation—PhD is presented to a Mitacs intern who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation during their Mitacs-funded research, according to the release.

Champagne is one of eight Mitacs award winners nationally, chosen from thousands of researchers who take part in Mitacs programs each year. The remaining seven recipients were recognized for outstanding innovation, commercialization or exceptional leadership in other areas of research.

In congratulating the winners, Mitacs CEO John Hepburn remarked on the importance of providing Canadian innovators with opportunities for experiential skills development through strategic partnership between industry, government and academia.

“These prestigious awards, now in their 12th year, celebrate the tremendous achievement of top Mitacs talent and recognize the infinite potential for innovation made possible when capable leaders work together,” Hepburn said. “Mitacs is honoured to play a role in helping to advance critical research, and foster economic growth, across Canada.”

For more information about the Mitacs awards and a full list of winners, visit www.mitacs.ca/newsroom .

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