Researchers use multiple techniques to study autism

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a class of developmental disabilities with mysterious origins and profound effects on individuals and families. Much remains to be learned about ASDs; research groups from several fields at Carnegie Mellon, including psychology and human-computer interaction, are working to understand their complexities. Researchers from each of these disciplines take different approaches to understanding individuals affected by ASDs.

In the cognitive psychology department, members of professor Marcel Just’s research group seek to identify differences in brain mechanisms between autistic and non-autistic individuals. They use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect regions and patterns of brain activity when individuals are asked to perform certain tasks. Ph.D. student Sarah Schipul uses this approach to understand how autistic individuals learn.

In one study, both autistic and non-autistic participants were trained to perform a particular task while undergoing a brain scan. While both groups were able to learn and perform the task successfully after training, results did show a difference in brain activation patterns. Whereas the control participants showed patterns of decreasing activation while learning the task, autistic participants did not. These findings suggest that, even though autistic individuals are capable of learning and performing a task, they are not able to reduce mental effort during the course of the learning process.

“If brain imaging studies can reveal the nature of atypical behaviors in autism, we may be able to inform intervention studies that help individuals with autism adapt to the world around them,” Schipul said.

Fellow researcher Akiko Mizuno also uses fMRI in her research, but her focus is on understanding brain mechanisms involved with autistic people’s interpersonal interactions. Individuals with autism often have difficulties with social interaction and face challenges in understanding others. Mizuno and collaborators scanned brain activity while participants performed a language task requiring the comprehension and use of pronouns. Autistic individuals often had difficulty correctly processing pronouns, particularly the word “you.” While the individuals performed the task, anomalous activity was found in regions of the brain responsible for the concept of self-identity.

“We suspect that the neural process of understanding the social world in relation to oneself is altered in autism,” Mizuno said. The results from Mizuno’s work underscore the potential importance of training people with autism in what psychologists refer to as “perspective-taking” — putting oneself in others’ shoes.

Using a slightly different approach, researchers in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) make use of the perspective-taking concept to design and improve computer systems from the viewpoint of people with autism. While human-computer interaction research has been applied to assist those who are severely impaired by autism, 2011 HCII Ph.D. graduate Moira Burke noticed that little research had examined the needs of high-functioning individuals.

“Adults on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum — including those with Asperger’s — often don’t have obvious signs of a disability, and when they have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, they can come across as socially awkward and are rejected for it,” Burke said. “We need far more research that examines the strengths and needs of adults on the autism spectrum.”

Burke sought to understand the social communication needs of high-functioning autistic individuals and to identify ways that computer-based communication could be used to help them. Through a series of observations and interviews with high-functioning autistic adults, Burke found that individuals experienced both benefits and particular challenges in communicating through email, text messages, and social networks.

While some participants found reduced stress levels from interacting with others via computer, many participants also experienced difficulties in understanding some nuances of online social interaction, indicating that opportunities exist to improve computer-based experiences for these individuals.

Research on autism encompasses a wide spectrum of disciplines and approaches. While these studies differ in approach, they are united in their common goal of understanding this disability, with the hopes of vastly improving quality of life for those affected by autism.