A year ago, the parents of 3-year-old Emma Tanner noticed that she wasn’t developing in the same way as other children her age. She had a high tolerance for pain. She liked to play by herself. Her daycare provider was having a hard time getting Emma to follow directions. Emma’s mother, Erika, could get her daughter to look at an object only if she moved Emma’s head and pointed to what she was talking about.
Erika discovered that Emma has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as do an estimated 1 in 150 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorder is characterized by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior and varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social interactions.
Although they may be extremely intelligent, children with autism find it difficult to learn how to engage with others socially. They avoid eye contact and thus are not good at picking up on nonverbal communication, recognizing how others are responding to them, or working cooperatively with others.
Emma is one of eight children (ages 2 to 5) who are taking part in the CUA pilot study of an autism intervention strategy. Carried out by the university’s psychology department, this 2007 study aims to help autistic children improve their ability to pay attention to faces and follow nonverbal cues.
Research Associate Professor Cheryl Trepagnier and Professor Marc Sebrechts are directing the study as leaders of CUA’s Autism Research Group, which is funded by six-figure grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation. After six months of data collection, the research group will assess the trainability of gaze in the children and see whether change in gaze behavior can stimulate their social skills.
“I became very interested in how people process others’ facial expressions while watching how my son recognized or failed to recognize people,” says Trepagnier, whose adult son has ASD. “If you’re not looking someone in the eye, you’re missing out on almost all nonverbal communication. If you’re not tuning in to the social channel early in life, your social and cognitive skills will be greatly impaired.”
The Autism Research Group began by tracking the eye movements of adolescents with milder forms of ASD in 1998. CUA doctoral and graduate students, as well as a number of undergraduates, have helped to carry out the current study focused on young children.
Each child involved in the study comes to O’Boyle Hall, where he or she is seated in a helicopter ride — one of those that kids can ride in front of some grocery stores and Wal-Marts. CUA’s Autism Research Group has rendered the ride stationary and fitted it with a video screen and with a small camera that tracks the child’s eye movements. Inside the ride, the child watches a video that parents have said he or she enjoys. At certain points the video is replaced on the screen by a person who prompts the child to look in a certain direction. The prompts include pointing, turning the head or just looking in a particular direction. If the child doesn’t immediately follow whichever prompt is given, an arrow will show him or her where to look. If the child doesn’t follow that cue, a beeping noise encourages the child to attend to the arrow.
If the child follows the prompted gaze direction, his or her preferred video appears in the part of the screen that the prompting indicated. The program controls the types of prompts — pointing, turning the head or looking in a given direction — depending on each child’s responses. The child’s eye movements are recorded and later analyzed.
The boys and girls are also studied in play interaction to see how they respond to another person and if the eye-gaze intervention is having an effect on how they interact with others over the course of the study. The child is videotaped during the play session and while in the helicopter ride. The videotaping is done unobtrusively from an observation room with a one-way mirror.
“There are a limited number of therapies and interventions that are known to help children with autism,” Sebrechts says. “If we can help them improve their use of gaze information, it might help them in their social interactions and therefore might improve others’ reactions to them.” — M.F.M.
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