UI professors collaborate with Northwestern on autism research


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Researchers at two Big Ten universities are working together to broaden scientific understanding of a fairly mysterious yet growing more common disorder.

Molly Losh, a Northwestern associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, is working in collaboration with Thomas Wassink, a University of Iowa professor of psychiatry, and Dianne McBrien, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics. Their study conducts in-person testing that includes collecting a blood sample from families of individuals with autism for later DNA testing. They hope to identify social and linguistic features that may be inheritable and which genetic patterns may create these features.

This is one example of the kind of groundbreaking research people can take note of today on World Autism Awareness Day. One in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder. One in every 54 boys is identified with autism.

Mark Harris, the director of UI student disability services, said officials cater to the language challenges of autistic students by working with faculty.

“We work with the faculty to see if public presentations are inherent to the purpose of the course or if it is just a vehicle to ensuring they have mastered the material,” he said. “As long as the faculty member doesn’t believe that being able to present publicly is core element of the course, they may be willing to give an alternative assignment.”

Losh, the principal investigator in the study, said the researchers meet with family members of autistic children and the children themselves to test them in a variety of ways, such as recording a family member or individual with autism telling a story about a social scene. Losh said a parent of a child with autism might focus more on smaller details rather than on the people in the story.

“[Children with autism] tend to focus less around main characters,” she said.

Losh’s research is working to show that relatives of people with autism may demonstrate very subtle differences in language use that reflect the influence of genetic factors associated with autism.

“These are really, really subtle patterns,” she said. “Our coding involves microanalyses of linguistic patterns that are only observable when examined on an utterance by utterance level.”

Wassink has worked with Losh for more than five years and has helped her find families in Iowa to study.

Losh said they are still searching for families who may be interested in the study and any interested in participating can contact her at her website, comm.soc.northwestern.edu/ndl.

One thing Losh is interested in looking at is the intellectual development over time of parents of children with autism. In Iowa, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills record can be made available to her with the parents’ permission, and she can track development through those test scores.

“That’s why it’s kind of a valuable population for her to recruit from here in Iowa, because so many people have taken that test,” Wassink said.

In the next six to 12 months, Wassink anticipates they will be ready to conduct DNA testing in his lab.

“We have a partial understanding of the genetic basis of autism right now,” he said. “We’re hoping to add to that knowledge. The more we understand [about] what causes autism, the more we’re able to develop better treatment for it and diagnose it earlier.”

UI Clinical Assistant Professor Elizabeth Delsandro, who works in the UI Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic, said research and awareness of autism is critical.

“It is crucial for the public to know about autism considering the prevalence of [it],” she said. “We definitely need more research happening and more funding that revolves around autism.”

Delsandro works with children and adults with autism in the clinic on both speech and social development. At the clinic, personnel use a variety of exercise and tactics such as role-playing to get patients practicing conversational and social skills.

“If they don’t have a functional way of communicating, they may result to communicating through other behaviors that may not be as socially acceptable,” she said.

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