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Lab pioneers autism research technique

New funding will allow the Social Awareness Laboratory at the Institute for Child Development to use basic research to help children with autism.

The laboratory has pioneered sophisticated, noninvasive techniques that allow very young children with a full range of autism spectrum disorders to be observed. The technology involved in previous testing meant that subjects were generally older and had less significant impairments.

“It’s really a radical change from what’s been done in the past,” said Raymond Romanczyk, director of the institute and a principal investigator for the grant along with Jennifer Gillis of Auburn University. “Much of what we think we know about social information processing in autism is based on a small segment of individuals who are most close to typical.”

Romanczyk notes that many of his participants — those with autism as well as those without — are “squirmy little ones who don’t like to sit still for long procedures.”

That posed a challenge the laboratory has met with procedures and equipment specially adapted for young children that are fun and friendly yet permit fast, precise measurement of where a child is looking, the level of physiological anxiety, as well as his affect, performance and behavior.

“Children with autism have great difficulty interpreting the emotions of other people and imitating people,” Romanczyk said.

The problem isn’t that they can’t recognize faces; it’s the emotion of the face that’s a challenge.

“How do we get at the core of this?” he asked.

The researchers offered a range of tasks for children to imitate. Those with autism performed as well as typical kids when asked to copy a task with a toy car. But, when asked to imitate a task that involved the face, children with autism performed more poorly.

“Because of the simultaneous psychophysiological measurement, this is giving us the basic information about the role of anxiety, if any, in social interaction,” Romanczyk explained.

One major supposition at this point is that a subset of children with autism spectrum disorders may just be indifferent to interaction, rather than having an aversion to it.

The new grant, about $30,000 a year for two years, will allow Romanczyk and his colleagues to bring this basic research to clinical application almost immediately, rather than in the usual three- to four-year time frame.

An initial group of 15 to 20 children with significant impairment is expected to begin participating in this study by the end of the year. Their ages will range from 2 to 8, unlike many other studies that have focused on children 16 and older.

Researchers plan to cluster children based on the type of problems they have with the imitation tasks and use that information to choose therapies for them. That should allow far more precision in treatment than has typically been available, Romanczyk noted.

“Treatment has always been a shotgun approach with this population,” he said.

The grant, which comes from the Organization for Autism Research, was awarded after a twostage peer review process. Strict criteria ensured that the project entails both good basic research and immediate applied benefi ts for children.

“It’s just enough to allow us to branch out from the direction we’re heading in our basic research,” Romanczyk said of the grant. “It’s amazing how a little bit of money at the right time can have a big payoff.”

In the last fi ve years or so, Romanczyk has been excited and gratifi ed to see technology catch up with the concepts he has been interested in exploring during his 30-year career in this field.

“To me, social interaction is the key to everything,” he said. “If you can’t interact on a daily basis, that severely limits what you can do.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08