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Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston , MA

Principal Investigator: Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, Ph.D.

Improving Language Skills in Autism Spectrum Disorder by Modulating Prefrontal Activity Noninvasively

his project focuses on improving language abilities of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) by using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). rTMS is a non-invasive way to induce a controlled amount of current in the living human brain and use it to explore the way in which brain regions interact to generate behavior. The investigators believe that language abilities of individuals with ASD are abnormal because connections between certain brain regions do not function normally early in life and development results in progressive maladaptive changes that account for symptoms of disease. These abnormal connections may relate to a dysfunction in mirror neurons, which help us understand actions of others and are critical for language acquisition. Research shows that mirror neuron function is abnormal in individuals with ASD. In humans a vast number of mirror neurons are in Broca's region, a part of the brain that is fundamental for speech and language. The investigators believe that dysfunction of mirror cells in this region leads to a faulty connectivity between Broca's region and other language areas in both halves of the brain and account for core deficits in individuals with ASD. Studies in patients with abnormal language due to a stroke affecting Broca's area (aphasia) reveal that modifying activity in the pars triangularis of the frontal operculum with rTMS improves language even after more than 10 years of aphasia. The investigators will use rTMS to change the activity in the pars triangularis in individuals with ASD with the hypothesis that it will lead to a language improvement. It is hoped that this study will provide an improved understanding of the cause of language deficits in ASD and will lead to the development of a new treatment strategy that will improve communication skills and social interactions of those with ASD.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA
2008- 2009

Principal Investigator: Gottfried Schlaug , MD , Ph.D.

Using Melodic Intonation to Facilitate Improvement in Language and Communication Skills in Autistic Children

One characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), perhaps the most heartbreaking, is the deficiency in communication skills. Unfortunately, interventions aimed at improving verbal output and/or communication skills are relatively few and have had limited success. However, since autistic children who often respond to music better than spoken language enjoy engaging in music-making, treatment methods that use music-based activities may provide an effective alternative or complement to traditional interventions for facilitating speech. The observation that many autistic children can sing, even when unable to speak, is strikingly similar to the disassociation seen in patients with Broca's aphasia who can sing the lyrics of a song better than they can speak the same words. Using a rehabilitative technique, Melodic Intonation Therapy, (MIT), that emphasizes the prosodic quality of speech through slow, pitched vocalizations (singing), has lead to significant improvement in speech production in such non-fluent aphasic patients. Since singing requires neural coupling of sounds with motor actions (e.g., production of sound (singing/speaking) depends upon the motor action of articulation), it is possible that MIT is capable of specifically engaging a 'hearing/doing' network, and thus, may offer an alternative therapeutic option for improving language and communication skills in ASD children. One case-report of the effects of MIT on an autistic 3-year old who had made no improvement after 1 year of verbal and sign language treatment, showed that after undergoing an adapted MIT program, he was capable of speaking in 2-word sentences. This project will use this music-based speech intervention (MIT) to build upon the musical strengths observed in autistic individuals and facilitate communication skills in children with ASD.

Gottfried Schlaug

Centro Studi Sulla Comunicazione Facilitata, Italy

Principal Investigator: Alda Scopesi, Mirella Zanobini

Linguistic Interactions of Autistic Boys in Different Facilitated Contexts

An important area of autism research concerns the evaluation of communicative abilities and the effectiveness of interventions aimed at promoting these competences. Different methods have been developed to improve verbal language or provide alternative or augmentative instruments of communication. Facilitated Communication (FC) is a technique for providing support to subjects with poor or inexistent verbal abilities as they convey typed messages. After a long and lively debate on the validity of FC, in recent years specific guidelines have been created to allow a progressive increase in the facilitated subjects' initiatives and spontaneous pointing, with the aim of total independency. This research project is inserted into the debate relative to linguistic abilities of autistic people, with particular reference to analysis of stylistic, semantic and lexical peculiarities of written texts produced with the support of FC. A psycholinguistic analysis can contribute indirectly to the debate on the authorship and effectiveness of the facilitated production. Furthermore, it could represent an opportunity to understand autistic people's subjectivity.

This study analyses the linguistic interactions of autistic boys - who need a minimal level of physical support - in different facilitated contexts, with the aim of exploring:

  • the presence of original expressions and typical linguistic characteristics, potentially indicative of the relative linguistic independence and authorship of the facilitated writings;
  • the presence of semantic and stylistic peculiarities, with particular reference to the psychological lexicon of people with autism;
  • the nature and development of the dialogue between the facilitated and facilitator and the influence of the facilitator's characteristics on the facilitated language in general and in particular on the use of the psychological lexicon.

Chapman University, Orange , CA

Principal Investigator: Donald Cardinal, Ph.D.

A Two Year Study of Communication Options for People with Autism and Their Effects on Quality of Life

This investigator is conducting a national survey of individuals who know well a person who uses an alternative or augmentative communication (AAC) system.  Its intent is to determine if users of AAC have had significant increases in quality of life since they began using these communication systems.  Responses of those who identify Facilitated Communication (FC) as their primary communication method will be compared to individuals using other AAC methods.  A publication will be created that will describe the impact that FC has had in the lives of individual FC users.

Donald Cardinal

Chapman University, Orange , CA

Principal Investigators: Donald Cardinal, Ph.D., Sally Young, Ph.D., Alan Fogel, Ph.D.

Engendering Change in the Movement and Communication Difficulties Experienced By Adults with Autism: A Dynamic Systems Approach Using Feldenkrais Movement Therapy

This study will evaluate the efficacy of Feldenkrais movement therapy as a tool to improve motor planning and function in people with the label of low-functioning autism.  By showing the potential for change in long-standing movement patterns, this study will provide a deeper understanding of movement and communication difficulties experienced by this group and of contextual elements that can support and engender the change process. All of these new understandings will be used to formulate more precise, experimental protocols in the future.

Donald Cardinal

Alan Fogel

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD
2008 -2009

Principal Investigator: Barry Gordon, MD, Ph.D. and Kerry Ledoux, Ph.D.

Subclinical Communications and Vocalizations in Autism: Investigation by Video/Audio Surveillance, Eye Movements, and Evoked Potentials

Many individuals affected by autism never seem to be able to speak or to understand speech. Yet their families and therapists often suspect that such individuals "know" more than they can express, despite the skepticism of those who do not know the individual as well. This may be because such individuals actually do have internal thoughts, even internal "speech" of some kind, but they appear to be oblivious and mute because their communicative efforts are so fleeting or atypical that they are not recognized, except by people familiar with their behavior. In this study, the investigator will apply four accepted and rigorous objective methods to try to determine if such individuals can "know" more than they seem to know, and can "express" more than they can express through traditional routes. The four methods are: 1) intensive audio-video surveillance; (2) eye movement recording; (3) pupillary diameter monitoring; and (4) electrical activity recorded through the scalp, analyzed looking for a particular wave (the N400 wave). Phase 1 of this research will attempt to establish the validity of the different measures by examining what they show in individuals with autism who can speak and communicate. Phase 2 will try to determine if a different set of participants, individuals with autism who have little or no speech, show some types of comprehension or expression on any or all of these measures in the course of trying to learn picture-word associations. If this research is successful to any degree, it would help motivate more concerted efforts to try to detect such abilities in individuals with autism who have little or no speech. Perhaps more importantly, this research would help to justify more aggressive efforts to explore alternative ways for such individuals to comprehend and to express themselves.

Barry Gordon

Lesley College Graduate School, Division of Educational Studies & Public Policy, Cambridge, MA

Principal Investigators: Anne Larkin, Ph.D. and Susan Gurry, Ed.D.

Facilitated Communication with Young Adults: Issues and Transitions

This study will examine the implications of Facilitated Communication with young adult men with autism living in community residential facilities. The study examines the following three questions: Can Facilitated Communication enable people with autism to demonstrate that they have high levels of understanding?; Does Facilitated Communication succeed with some people with autism and not others?; Can there by any breakthrough in expressive communication as a result of this training procedure? Following initial training in Facilitated Communication, the project directors will follow the communication attempts between three young men ages 25-29 and their group home staff for a six-month period. Notes from monthly meetings, videotaped recordings, transcripts of the actual communication sessions and exit interviews with staff and administration will be recorded and analyzed.

School of Education - Lesley University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

Principal Investigator: Deb Roy, Ph.D.

Language Development and Outcome in Children with Autism

Language development in typical children follows specific developmental sequences and demonstrates inherent biases at certain stages. It is not known to what degree language development in children with autism follows the same developmental rules or achieves language comprehension via different routes. This project begins a collaboration between a developmental psycholinguist specializing in typical and atypical language development, Letitia Naigles, and a cognitive scientist, Deb Roy. The project will build on a parent NIH-funded project led by Naigles that investigates whether the processes of language acquisition and development in autism are similar to that of typically developing children, and what language comprehension measures reveal about the processes and products of language acquisition in children with autism. A "Speechome Recorder", developed by the Roy's team, will be employed to collect ecologically valid, dense samples of child speech and visual context, which will then be analyzed using novel algorithms to reveal children's developing transition from context-boundedness to extendability. Six families already participating in the parent longitudinal study (three with a child with autism, three with a typically developing child) will have a Speechome Recorder installed in one room of their home for up to 12 months. The Speechome Recorder will make daily recordings, 2-3 hours in duration, of the target child's speech, social activity, and physical activity, as well as of the speech and activity of others in the room with the child. Entropy and grammatical analyses of the utterances and their contexts will reveal the extent to which children use their speech about more varied referents, in response to more varied utterances and prompts, and in more varied social situations, across time. These findings will be compared with comprehension measures from the parent project, and will be used as additional early predictors of ASD children's language abilities at ages 6-8.

Deb Roy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

Principal Investigator: Rosalind Picard, Sc.D. and Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D.

Computerized Interventions to Promote Verbal Expression in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders

This project is a collaborative effort between Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Media Laboratory (ML)-an interdisciplinary research lab at the forefront of creating new technologies for improving the human experience, and the Groden Center, Inc.-a non-profit school in Providence, RI that provides community-based, evaluative, therapeutic, and educational programs for children and adults with ASD-to develop computerized intervention technologies that assist individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in understanding and producing verbal expressions that carry much of the communicative and emotional information in language. The intervention consists of two innovative technology components: (1) a wearable speech recorder that integrates with a wearable camera to record faces and speech in dyadic interactions, and (2) an interactive, computerized game that facilitates the visualization, and manipulation of speech characteristics, as well as conversational dynamics. The interactive game extracts and maps speech characteristics to alternative sensory channels such as visual or auditory feedback, catering to the visual and auditory strengths of persons with ASD. This yearlong research plan consists of the following three aims: (1) Collect a speech corpus documenting dyadic conversations between 10 individuals with ASD at the Groden Center and their staff members; (2) Apply and extend speech-feature extraction and classification toolkits to the speech corpus of individuals with ASD; (3) Conduct participatory and experimental evaluation sessions with 10 students at the Groden Center, their teachers, parents, and speech-language therapists to iteratively test and refine the wearable and interactive, computerized toolkit. This project aims to improve social communication capacities of persons with ASD, as well as enable speech-language therapists, teachers, and parents to assess and teach verbal expression in a novel and fun way that is individually-tailored for each person's interest, sensory, and perceptual capabilities.

Rosalind Picard

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

Principal Investigator: Emilio Bizzi, M.D.

Improving the Communication Capabilities of People with Autism Who Use Assisted Typing Through the Use of Mechanical Devices

The goal of this project is to develop a system to improve the communication capabilities and eye-hand coordination of patients with autism. In general terms, the use of the system will be as follows: a set of letters (targets) will be presented sequentially or simultaneously on a screen. An eye-tracking system will record the position of the subject’s eyes as they converge on the target’s spatial location. With the help of an assistive (phantom) device the subject’s finger will be guided to the spatial position of the target. Depending upon the age and spelling ability of the subject, pictures may substitute letters presented on the screen. The system will be comprised of three parts: a) an eye-tracking system, b) a phantom device to which the subject’s finger will be attached and which will help guide them to touch the target, and c) a software interface that will couple the two systems. This system aims to improve subjects’ communication capabilities as well as subjects’ eye-hand coordination.

Bizzi Laboratory

Nottingham Trent University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

Principal Investigator: Andy Grayson, Ph.D.

Eye-Tracking and Facilitated Communication

Facilitated communication (FC) is a strategy which aims to enhance communication skills by helping people learn to point or type. It is controversial when used by people with autism because it involves physical contact between the FC user and facilitator, making it difficult to determine who is responsible for the typing. Some peer-reviewed studies have concluded that the emergent language is being authored by the facilitator, while other peer reviewed studies have concluded that the emergent language is authored by the FC user. Some, but not all speech and language professionals maintain that FC is a useful strategy. This research will use fine-grained video analysis to measure typing-related behaviors in FC users and facilitators. By comparing the same FC users working with different facilitators, and facilitators working with different FC users, inferences about authorship can be drawn based on behavioral inconsistencies. If an FC user is typing, one would expect to see consistency in the way they type letters and words, irrespective of who is giving physical support. This project also explores the usefulness of eye-tracking technology as a means for enhancing understanding of FC. FC users will wear eye-tracking equipment while typing, which shows where they are looking at any given point in time.

Andy Grayson

The Open University, United Kingdom

Principal Investigator: Andrew Grayson, Ph.D.

Facilitated Communication: A Systematic Observational Research Project Involving Fine-Grained Video Analysis and Eye Tracking (funded through NAAR)

Facilitated communication (FC) is a strategy which aims to enhance communication skills by helping people learn to point or type. It is controversial when used by people with autism because it involves physical contact between the FC user and facilitator, making it difficult to determine who is responsible for the typing. Some peer-reviewed studies have concluded that the emergent language is being authored by the facilitator, while some speech and language professionals maintain that FC is a useful strategy.

This research will use fine-grained video analysis to measure typing-related behaviors in FC users and facilitators. By comparing the same FC users working with different facilitators, and facilitators working with different FC users, inferences about authorship can be drawn based on behavioral inconsistencies. If an FC user is typing, one would expect to see consistency in the way they type letters and words, irrespective of who is giving physical support. This project also explores the usefulness of eye-tracking technology as a means for enhancing understanding of FC. FC users will wear eye-tracking equipment while typing, which shows where they are looking at any given point in time.

Andy Grayson

Oregon Health and Science University , Portland ,OR
2008 -2011

Principal Investigator: Deniz Erdogmus, Ph.D. and Lois Black, Ph.D.

ERP Based Communication Device for Nonverbal Children on the Autism Spectrum

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) exhibit varying levels of communication abilities. In this project, the investigator will address the communication needs of the subset that: 1) lack expressive speech and language; 2) lack ability to operate a keyboard, pointing device, or other typical assistive interface; and 3) are assumed to have adequate cognition, literacy, and receptive language understanding. This research aims to develop a communication system for such children. Resulting technology could also benefit other children and adults with adequate cognition but limited communication options. The investigator will develop an assistive communication facilitation device referred to as the RSVP Keyboard. It unites three technologies: 1) Rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP, with individually adjustable presentation rates) of letters/words/phrases; 2) a yes/no intent detection mechanism based on detecting evoked-response potentials (ERP) in the brain to determine which target letter or letters the child wants to convey; 3) a statistical language model based dynamic sequencing optimization procedure that computes which letter needs to be presented next to take advantage of regularities in language. The system will operate by showing the sequence of candidate letters on the screen as well as previously typed text, such that words and phrases are formed naturally by adding selected letters. The first goal is to test the viability of the basic concept of facilitated communication through the RSVP Keyboard System. Upon demonstration of feasibility through neuroimaging and statistical analysis of brain responses to RSVP stimuli sequences, the investigator will evaluate performances of typically developing children and nonverbal children with ASD in three interactive cognitive tasks.

Deniz Erdogmus

Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR
2008 -2009

Principal Investigator: Jan van Santen, Ph.D. and Lois Black, Ph.D.

In Your Own Voice: Personal Augmentative and Alternative Communication Voices for Minimally Verbal Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Many children with autism who have limited verbal abilities use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices to help them communicate with others. Often, these devices produce speech output. Necessarily, the voice of such a system does not resemble in any way the voice of the child who uses the system. This project is for children who have at least some speech capability, such as saying a few isolated words. The investigator will develop technology that performs a voice transplant of the child's natural voice onto the AAC device, so that the device's voice will sound like the child. The investigator hypothesizes that an AAC device with a personalized voice that mimics the child's voice will psychologically reinforce powerful motivational factors and a sense of owness for communication so that the frequency and richness of AAC use, and its acceptance by family members and friends, will be enhanced. In addition, as a tool for improving a child's speech capabilities, a system that speaks with a voice similar to the child's own voice is likely to be more effective than a system that speaks with a default synthetic voice because the computer provides a model that is closer to the child's speech and hence is easier to emulate by the child. To create the system, the investigator will build on the most recent voice transformation, speech synthesis, and other speech technologies that have been developed in his lab.

Jan van Santen

The Regents of the University of California, Irvine, CA

Principal Investigator: Michael Leon, Ph.D. and Ira Lott, M.D.

Olfactory and Other Novel Treatments for Autism

Autism is a severe developmental disorder, involving profound deficits in communication, social interactions and repetitive/compulsive behaviors. While there is increasing adoption of early interventions for the treatment of autism, these therapies require an extraordinary commitment of time and money, with only varying degrees of success. This project takes advantage of recent findings in the animal literature demonstrating that early sensory and motor stimulation allows brains to become much more resistant to neurological challenges, thereby preserving neurobehavioral function in the face of genetic, toxic and physical insults to the brain. In preliminary work, the investigator considered the possibility that humans challenged by autism would have similar gains in functionality with a specific type of increased sensory stimulation. There is now data showing that thirty-one of thirty-one autistic individuals given this form of sensory stimulation experienced measurable and significant improvements over a wide range of their symptoms, including the critical issue of communication. Through this grant, the investigator will test this treatment systematically with a randomized controlled trial. The sole aim of this project is to assess the efficacy of this treatment using a randomized controlled trial for 8-10 year-old autistic individuals, with a follow-up period to assess the ongoing efficacy of the treatment. If the therapy proves to be effective, it should be possible to treat autistic children reliably and effectively at a minimal expense.

Michael Leon

Syracuse University, Institute on Communication and Inclusion, Syracuse, NY

Principal Investigator: Douglas Biklen, Ph.D.

Core Funding for the Institute on Communication and Inclusion

This grant to the Institute on Communication and Inclusion (formerly the Facilitated Communication Institute) provides core funding for research, demonstration/training, and dissemination of public information about Facilitated Communication (FC), augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and inclusion strategies. The core activities for 2010-2011 include: organizing an international symposium of research on literacy and AAC, including FC; updating web content on research, policy, and model practices; enhancing the visibility of FC and of individuals who can type without physical support or who can speak before and as they type; organizing the fifth annual Summer Institute on FC, AAC and inclusion strategies; providing model approaches for supporting adults to communicate, including support for FC users in higher education; providing support to professionals who are introducing content on FC into mainstream policy, literature, literacy, school reform, and related fields; creating an adult support group for individuals who use FC as their primary means of expression; increasing training for young students; providing on-site consultation and training support to local FC users; continuing to expand the participation of FC users in training activities; and engaging master trainers in providing training opportunities. This grant will provide support for an Assistant Professor, one doctoral student to intern at the Institute, training consultants for national workshops, a FC trainer on staff at the Institute, and provide funding for basic operational activities.

Click here to read the NLMFF Interview with Dr. Biklen

Institute on Communication and Inclusion (formerly the Facilitated Communication Institute)

TASH, Baltimore, MD

Fostering Support of a Full Range of Communication Methods and Empowering Users of Facilitated Communication and other Augmentative and Alternative Communication Methods

TASH is an international association of people with disabilities, their family members, and professionals advocating for inclusion of all people in all aspects of society. The aim of this project is to identify and overcome barriers that stand in the way of people with communication differences and difficulties self-directing their lives and becoming full participants in their communities and the disabilities rights movement. Project teams, including people with autism who have communicated using Facilitated Communication (FC) and TASH staff, will accomplish this goal by: 1) broadening the voice of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) users by building better connections with self-advocacy, advocacy and the disability community regarding communication rights; 2) building a comprehensive website which will provide resources on FC, including research articles, training information, and information on legislative action; 3) increasing the number of organizations that understand the importance of communication and accept as a valid, evidence-based practice the full range of AAC methods; 4) bringing AAC users and advocates to Washington, DC to participate in an organized public policy day; and 5) making Hill visits to educate elected officials about the issues regarding the need for research about and access to funding and services for AAC.


University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Principal Investigator: Jose Alcantara, Ph.D. and Christian Fullgrabe, Ph.D.

Psychophysical and Speech Perception Studies in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders

One of the remarkable properties of speech perception is its high resilience to the corrupting influences of background sounds. Everyday experience tells us that, even in noisy acoustic environments, we are able to understand speech, with little or no effort on our part. It appears that the human auditory system has developed useful strategies or mechanisms to optimize the saliency of the speech signal. Some of these mechanisms involve processing that occurs at very low levels of the auditory system, including the hearing end organ - the cochlea. Others occur at higher levels, up to and including the auditory cortex, and beyond. However, it is clear that the low-level processing stages are important, particularly for our perception of loudness, and the detection of speech in noise. Individuals with autism appear to react aversively to sounds, and have difficulty understanding speech when there are competing sounds present. Currently, we are not certain whether these symptoms are due to alterations in low- or high-level auditory processing. However, the evidence for the former is compelling, although we do not as yet know the nature of the underlying mechanisms responsible for the observed speech-in-noise deficits and atypical loudness perception. This project involves a series of behavioral and objective studies of auditory perception using both simple and complex stimuli to identify those mechanisms responsible for the perceptual difficulties experienced by individuals with autism. The results of the project have the potential to lead to the development of new screening tools for auditory sensitivity in autism, which will be important not only for improved clinical diagnosis, but also for the use in epidemiological and genetic research into autism, and may also help in the design of digital speech processing algorithms to compensate for auditory processing abnormalities.

University of Cambridge, Laboratory for Research into Autism

University of Connecticut, Storrs , CT

Principal Investigator: Letitia Naigles, Ph.D.

The Development of Language Comprehension in Children with Autism: A Longitudinal Study Using the Intermodal Preferential Looking Program (funded through NAAR)

Dr. Naigles is investigating early language acquisition in children with autism. Is the process of language acquisition in children with autism similar to that of typically developing children? What do language comprehension measures reveal about the process and products of language acquisition in children with autism? Dr. Naigles plans to access language of children with autism using comprehension measures that may reveal both hidden strengths and weaknesses in their language acquisition. Using a method called "Intermodal Preferential Looking", a child observes two simultaneously presented video events while listening to linguistic stimulus that describes only one of the events. If the child watches the matching event more than the nonmatching event, the child is inferred to have comprehended the linguistic stimulus. This method has been used on typically developing toddlers, and the researchers have already successfully applied it to three children with autism. This research has the potential to provide information concerning treatment strategies and insights into deficits and strengths in language comprehension of children with autism.

University of Illinois, The Psychiatric Institute, Chicago , IL

Principal Investigator: Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

Stimulating Social Communication in Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Neurological Approach

The goal of this project is to demonstrate the efficiency and efficacy of the Listening Project, a biologically-based behavioral intervention derived from the Polyvagal Theory, on adolescent and adult individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  The Polyvagal Theory provides a neurobiological explanation for specific neural mechanisms associated with the spontaneous social behavior expressed by humans.  This project is based on the premise that social behavior is a naturally occurring emergent property of the human nervous system.  According to this model, positive social behavior is dependent on the nervous system being in a specific state. Intervention strategies that foster this state will have a positive impact on the social interaction skills of people with autism.   The research program focuses on the development, evaluation, and application of this class of interventions in a cohort of adults with autism.

The Psychiatric Institute

Stephen Porges

University of Illinois, The Psychiatric Institute, Chicago , IL

Principal Investigator: Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

Stimulating Social Engagement Behaviors in Individuals with Autism

The Social Engagement System, based on the Polyvagal Theory, provides a neurobiological model of how difficulties in spontaneous social behavior are related to facial expressivity and regulation of bodily state.  Relevant to autism are specific deficits in the Social Engagement System that are expressed in behaviors dependent on muscles of the face and head and regulation of bodily state. This grant explores the hypothesis that spontaneous social behavior, social awareness, affect expressivity, prosody, language development and a behavioral "reliance" on restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior are, in part, derivative and predictable consequences of problems in the neural regulation of the Social Engagement System.  The aims of the research are: 1) to describe the autistic nervous system through the development of new theory-driven measures that may have immediate application in the assessment of impairment and evaluation of intervention outcomes; and 2) to expand current successful intervention technologies to an adult population and to determine the features of individuals who will benefit from this intervention.

The Psychiatric Institute

Stephen Porges

University of Rome Tor Vergata, Italy
2008 -2009

Principal Investigator: Maria Palmieri, MD and Maurizio Elia, MD

Mirror Neuron System and Written Communication through Facilitated Communication in People with Autism: A Cortical Profile of Excitability and Inhibition by Means of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

There are several studies that link Mirror Neurons (MN) to language and other studies describe a possible malfunction of the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) in people with autism. However, some people with autism use pointing and typing (FC) as an alternative to verbal language. This project is driven by the hypothesis that FC might activate the MNS, helping the person with autism to communicate. The aim is to investigate this hypothesis by means of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive technique widely used to test neuromotor activation. TMS is able to explore some brain circuits in humans, and TMS experiments in non-autistic people have demonstrated an activation of some brain areas while reading and speaking. This project will investigate whether the same is true for children with autism and no verbal language who have learned to read and write. If this is true, it would demonstrate that pointing with the objective of typing is an intentional movement. The study assumes that reading and writing, learned by FC, have created a common code between the two people who communicate which allows them to understand each other. Twenty non-speaking people with autism and twenty non-autistic people will participate in this year-long study. Selected subjects will undergo a clinical and neuropsychological assessment. After identifying participants, the investigator will test her hypothesis using TMS recording to prove that the typing on a keyboard of autistic FC users is intentional (i.e. independent from facilitator). If able to demonstrate this, the investigator will show that either MNS works in people with autism or that it has been activated as a result of training by means of FC and AAC strategies.

University of Rome Tor Vergata

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
2008 -2009

Principal Investigator: Maja Mataric, Ph.D.

Socially Assistive Robotics for Socialization and Communication Training in Children with Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been shown to respond socially to simple robots. While interest in and engagement with machines has been reliably observed, it remains to be validated whether such interactions can lead toward improvements in the child's communication and social skill training. The goal of this study is to test and validate the possibility of transference of communication and social skills between robots and children with autism toward family, peers, and others.

This study brings together experts in ASD, social behavior, and intelligent socially assistive robotics. Their combined expertise and resources will be brought to bear, in a principled hypothesis-testing approach, not to develop new technology, but to study ways in which existing technology can be applied for effective therapeutic use. Through the involvement of the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange and Children's Hospital of Los Angeles , children across the ASD spectrum will participate in the study.

The child-robot interactions begin as simple scenarios, and gradually increase in complexity in a child-specific, individualized manner. They will involve social and communication skills such as pointing, the use of personal pronouns, and joint attention, imitation, turn-taking, and vocal communication. The study will involve family members and peers, testing how child-robot communication and social interaction can be transferred to child-robot-peer and, eventually, toward child-peer communication and interaction. Different robot forms will be tested, from simple car-like platforms to more complex but affordable human-like machines. The results of child-robot interactions will be compared to interactions with computers, caretakers, and peers, to identify the potential role and effectiveness of robots as therapeutic tools for children with autism.

Maja Mataric

University of Wisconsin- Madison, Madison, WI
2008 -2009

Principal Investigator: Morton Gernsbacher, Ph.D. and Hill Goldsmith, Ph.D.

The Neuroanatomical Origin of Severe Speech Impairment in Autism

Autistic individuals' delay and, for some, continued impairment in speech are typically ascribed to intellectual impairments or social affiliation deficits. Indeed, autistic individuals whose speech does not develop to fluency are often referred to as "low functioning," and are sure to be disadvantaged on many measures of intelligence. However, when assessed without demand on speech production, minimally fluent autistic individuals excel on the pre-eminent test of fluid intelligence. Similarly, although theoretical speculations continue to misperceive autism as an attachment disorder, all empirical studies demonstrate that autistic individuals are as securely attached to their primary caregivers as their peers.

In contrast to socio-emotional or intellectual attributions for autistic individuals' severe speech impairment, the research of Gernsbacher and colleagues has implicated oral- and manual-motor development. It should be noted that language is the mental representation of concepts, whereas speech is literally the articulation of language. Speaking fluently requires "an intricate orchestration" of oral-motor mechanisms.

The prominent associations among oral- and manual-motor skills and speech fluency which Gernsbacher and colleagues have documented in previous research, bear striking implications for appreciating communication impairment in autism. For instance, these associations challenge the common assumption that manual modes of communication, including those that require keyboarding, are available to autistic individuals - if simply they choose to use them.

This project is motivated by two important findings: (1) a neuroanatomical marker of individuals with speech impairment, and (2) a manual-motor behavioral marker of individuals with severe speech impairment that could be related to the neuroanatomical marker. Therefore, the purpose of the project is to explore the inter-relations among speech fluency, neuroanatomical structure, and manual dominance.

Laboratory of Morton Ann Gernsbacher

Yale University Child Study Center, New Haven , CT

Principal Investigators: Fred R. Volkmar, M.D. and Katarzyna Chawarska, Ph.D.

Precursors of Joint Attention Skills in Autism and Related Conditions (funded through NAAR)

Joint attention is considered a basic social skill upon which rest the development of reciprocal communication and thinking about others. Deficits in joint attention are virtually universal in children with autism. Mechanisms underlying joint attention deficits are poorly understood. This study will identify and measure precursors of joint attention skills. The researchers will focus on spontaneous gaze monitoring, or the capacity for knowing gaze of others to objects and events. The precursors of this capacity will be studied, including the capacity for engaging in eye-to-eye attention with others by maintaining eye contact and the capacity for using gaze of others to regulate one's own behavior. The researchers aim to identify any differences in profiles of infants with autism from profiles of non-autistic developmentally delayed and typically developing children. This will allow the researchers to specify which abilities are present and which are not, in an effort to breakdown gaze monitoring into its component parts. This research could elucidate the origins of gaze abnormalities in autism, advance our understanding of neural substrates involved in the social disability seen in autism, and contribute to the design of diagnostic instruments aimed at detecting autism prior to 18 months of age.

Yale Child Study Center

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