Autism Research Criss-crosses the Campus
Depending on the age of the child, psychologist Laura Knight may use make-believe play as part of her autism assessment. Photo: Keith Boyer
Autism Research Criss-crosses the Campus
A number of IUP faculty members have been conducting research aimed at improving the lives of people with autism.
More than a decade ago, Teresa Shellenbarger, professor of nursing, wrote an article in the Journal of Emergency Nursing that gave emergency departments strategies for caring for patients with Asperger’s syndrome.
Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) replaced Asperger’s with the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in 2013, Asperger’s was previously considered a disorder on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum.
Shellenbarger’s advice came from personal experience. Her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age five, and as a nurse, she closely observed how medical professionals treated him.
Her most important advice: Every person on the spectrum is different, and health care workers must adapt to meet those needs.
“Do they have a certain interest you can use? Are written instructions better than verbal? You can’t follow a strict routine,” she said. “You have to figure out what will work for that individual.”
Lou Pesci ’92, D’09 began thinking about the challenges of providing emergency care to people with autism when his son, who is on the spectrum, touched a hot pipe. Pesci said he and his wife “had a heck of a time figuring out what happened.”
Pesci is director of IUP’s Institute for Rural Health and Safety, which shares a building along West Pike with Citizens’ Ambulance Service, and he began exploring how much training on autism spectrum disorders emergency responders receive. He found half a page in the standard textbook.
Pesci contacted David Wachob ’05, M’09, D’12 in Kinesiology, Health, and Sport Science, and they partnered last spring on a survey of emergency responders to determine comfort and knowledge levels relating to autism.
Wachob was fresh off a study last year that showed promise in the use of morning physical activity to improve sleep in children with autism. His study, conducted with fellow faculty member David Lorenzi, was published last August in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Three centers at IUP do extensive work with autism and help train students along the way.
Laura Knight, who runs the child and family clinic in the Center for Applied Psychology, said autism is a question in about 75 percent of evaluations the clinic performs. Because pediatricians and early intervention services typically diagnose children with overt symptoms, she and her clinical psychology doctoral students tend to see children ages 6 to 12 with more subtle cases of autism.
Along with an IQ test, parent interview, and check of how the child manages daily living tasks, the evaluation includes the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, an observational assessment Knight’s department considers the “gold standard” for measuring autism.
For younger children, the assessment is play based and may involve activities such as blowing bubbles. “The child may look at the bubbles and look at the person blowing bubbles, and that shares some pleasure,” Knight said. “When those things are absent, that can be an indicator.”
The Child Study Center, within the Educational and School Psychology Department, also evaluates for autism. Director Mark McGowan said his center’s evaluations focus on learning—“how students learn, what are the best practices in terms of teaching methods, and intervening with these kids in the educational system.”
The evaluations involve, in part, talking with teachers and staff members at the child’s school and observing the child in the classroom, on the playground, and in other school settings.
The center’s faculty members and graduate students also consult with families, school systems, and community service providers to help meet the needs of children on the spectrum.
Because autism is often associated with difficulties in communicating, many families seek treatment through the Speech, Language, and Hearing Clinic.
With preschool children, Lisa Price and her speech-language pathology students work on improving communication, even if that means pointing or gesturing.
She described two main treatment camps in the field. Applied behavior analysis, or behaviorism, uses a reward system to teach basic skills to people with autism, with the idea that those skills will help “pull them into this world” and learn to build relationships. In contrast, her specialty, social interactionist treatment, aims to “build the relationship first and allow the skills to emerge.” Most children benefit from having some of both treatment approaches, she said.
Price is also participating in a study that teaches peers of children with autism, either siblings or classmates, strategies to extend play. “We need other people in the child’s environment to be capable of embedding treatment,” she said.
Autism is often associated with poor eye contact, and where the eyes focus is a research interest of Psychology faculty member Lisa Newell.
Psychology faculty member Lisa Newell, right, and Shara Rosen ’16 studied where people’s eyes focus when they watch someone talk and how that focus may vary in people with autism. Their project is one of many across campus that address autism. Photo: Keith Boyer
This summer, Newell helped recent psychology honors graduate Shara Rosen use eye-tracking equipment to study the McGurk effect on people with autism. Discovered in the ’70s, the effect is created by mismatching audio and visual components of sounds. For example, when the sound “ba” is matched with lip movements for “ga,” most people hear “da.”
Newell said the blended phoneme is likely the result of people’s focus on the eyes and mouth. “There’s some evidence that individuals with autism don’t show as strong an effect. Our question is whether that’s because they’re not looking at the face in the same way typically developing people are.”
Another study at IUP this summer explores the effects of lighting on children with autism. Ali Kappel, assistant professor of special education, with help from Dean’s Associate Lynanne Black, has been working with Ohio-based Energy Focus to study whether changing from fluorescent to LED lighting improves the performance of students with autism.
Students in the study are from Crossroads, an afterschool program run by Family Behavioral Resources that works on social skills of Indiana County children with autism. The program has met on campus for nearly a year. This summer, Kappel tracked students’ off-task behaviors in the Stouffer Hall classroom before and after the lighting was switched. She expects to have results by early fall.
Kappel and Black worked with two IUP alumni on the project: Eric Hilliard ’94, president of Energy Focus, and Erica Walter ’08, M’10, clinical supervisor at Family Behavioral Resources.
As the incidence of autism has risen, so has the demand for qualified professionals in the field. IUP recently began offering an autism endorsement certificate, which provides specialized training for teachers, and is in the process of developing Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst certificate programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels, respectively.
Tim Runge, of the Educational and School Psychology faculty, is leading efforts to develop the graduate certificate program. He explained that schools and community agencies want to hire people with these credentials because they meet a national standard and because insurance companies are starting to require them.
For students in the School Psychology doctoral program, completing the BCBA course work could take as little as an extra semester, Runge said, and “it makes them far more employable and marketable. If I were working in a school district and had two PhD school psychologists applying for the same job, and one had this extra credential, I’d choose that one in a heartbeat.”
Organizers of the BCBA and BCaBA programs are hoping for a fall 2017 start.