Laguna Beach teen’s passion for autism research lands CHOC research internship

Jimmy Dunne, 15, of Laguna Beach. Photo courtesy of James Dunne

Jimmy Dunne was inspired to find therapies for people living with autism by growing up with a best friend who developed some of the most severe symptoms on the spectrum.

The duo first met as newborns but Jimmy remembers recognizing how they were different around four years old. His friend couldn’t talk or make eye contact. Over the years, the boys developed a strong friendship and enjoy bowling, trampoline jumping, and rock climbing together.

“He talks to me a lot more. This has allowed me to see a side that other people can’t see,” Jimmy said.

Through some innovative therapies, his life-long friend has advanced to where he’s able to enroll in a traditional school. His speech and interpersonal skills are works in progress.

The Servite High School sophomore was recently selected from nearly 500 applicants for a research internship with the CHOC Sharon Disney Lund Medical Intelligence and Innovation Institute. The Institute explores cutting-edge pediatric therapies in genomics medicine, stem cells, nanomedicines, robotics, and medical devices.

“I’m pretty astounded. I thought my application was pretty good. I was competing against college kids and some medical students. It’s almost surreal,” Jimmy said.

The 15-year-old and his family split their time between homes in Laguna Beach and Anaheim.

This isn’t Jimmy’s first exposure to a behavioral health clinic. Last summer, he worked at Advanced Behavioral Health in Huntington Beach observing how kids under three years old were treated for autism and other neurological disorders.

“What we’re looking for is creative individuals who we can help make into the next generation of device creators and healthcare providers with a pediatric focus,” Dr. Sharief Taraman, a CHOC pediatric neurologist and Disney Lund Institute internship director. “The internship is really to open their minds into the world of medicine.”

Taraman added that inviting teenagers into CHOC’s research labs gives physicians and researchers a fresh perspective to reevaluate why they continue to do things a certain way. A former intern has since risen through the ranks to chief of staff at a hospital, he said.

Jimmy heard about the so-called MI3 internship from a friend who has been previously accepted into the program. He’s hoping to mix his passion for researching autism and the latest therapies, particularly a concept already evaluated by the FDA that employs virtual reality headsets as diagnostic and digital therapeutic devices for children living with autism. Taraman and his colleagues are currently in the research and development phase of using virtual reality to help patients.

During his previous clinical internship, Jimmy witnessed how families with autistic children would often struggle to juggle work, school, and behavioral health treatment during a pandemic.

“Parents would cancel their appointments because of odd hours and distance from home,” Jimmy said. “I thought VR would be an easier way for kids to access treatment.”

Potentially physicians could send virtual reality headsets home with a family so they don’t have to travel to a doctor’s office.

The internship committee was also impressed by Jimmy’s well-roundedness as a soccer player for both Servite High School and Laguna Beach Football Club. As incoming president of his high school’s Key Club, he’s helped organize a book drive for a Northwest Anaheim elementary school serving low-income families. He’s also fluent in Mandarin and Spanish.

Ideally, Jimmy would like to pursue a career as a pediatric neurological disorder researcher after studying at one of the nationally-recognized research universities such as USC, John Hopkins University, or Stanford University.

“One part I’m really excited to look at is the financial aspect of it. If you come up with an idea how do you accomplish it?” Jimmy said.

Jimmy also hopes to help break up the social stigma some parents fear when mulling whether to get their child evaluated for autism. He promotes getting children tested and treated earlier in life.

“There are steps in place that you can take to help. It’s not a life sentence,” he said.

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  1. Congratulations to my cousin. I am thoroughly impressed with his empathy, insight, and intellect. He, and the other youth of today, give me hope for a better world. Congratulations to Jimmy Dunne! 🎉

  2. Great story INDY. What a mature and amazing young man. Congratulations to Jimmy and his parents who have clearly taught him to be respectful and more importantly to care and help others.

  3. Congratulations Jimmy! You’re mature and thoughtful comments are very impressive. Your accomplishments to date are far beyond your years. I look forward to witnessing your bright future.


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