How can we better understand and support people with autism? And how can we tell if an intervention is working? Those are among the questions being asked in the Faja Laboratory, where Susan Faja, PhD, and her team study social and cognitive development in children, teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), using a variety of tools.
Originally on Snapchat, this video walks through some of these studies, including:
Individual Development of Executive Attention (IDEA), looking at executive functioning in 2- to 6-year-olds with autism, developmental disability or no developmental concerns. Executive functions include the ability to plan, manage complex or conflicting information, problem-solve and shift between different rules in different situations. By observing young children while they play hands-on tabletop games, Faja’s team is trying to find out: do kids with autism have problems with executive functioning early on, or do problems emerge later as a result of autism itself? The study is an extension of the ongoing GAMES project for 7- to 11-year-olds, in which children play video games designed to boost their executive functions. Faja is also looking to teach parents to use the games with their children at home.
Autism Biomarkers Consortium for Clinical Trials (ABC-CT), a multi-institution study that’s seeking objective, reliable measurements of social function and communication in people with autism. “Language, IQ and social assessments are not so sensitive when you’re looking for changes in autism symptoms, especially subtle ones,” says Faja. So her team is using physiologic measures — like EEGs to measure brain activity and eye-tracking technology to measure visual attention — and correlating them with behavioral and cognitive assessments. The ultimate goal is to validate a set of tools that can be used in clinical trials — and in day-to-day practice — to objectively measure and predict how children with ASD will respond to treatment.
Competence in Romance and Understanding Sexual Health (CRUSH), a new study, will enroll young adults with autism and their parents. The goal is to develop curriculum around dating and sexual health that meets the needs of the ASD population, starting with interviews to determine their needs and interests. No evidence-based curricula currently exist for adults on the spectrum, says Faja.
What makes children with autism tick, and how can we help them function better socially? That’s the focus of research in the lab Susan Faja, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital.
The GAMES project seeks to build social skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by building cognitive skills, specifically executive functioning. Through computer games and coaching, Faja hopes strengthen kids’ ability to plan, inhibit behavior, manage complex or conflicting information and shift flexibly between different rules or situations. She believes executive function training will help children with ASD better understand other people’s perspectives and act more appropriately in social situations.
Faja is also interested in biomarkers that indicate whether interventions are working, including brain EEG recordings and eye tracking. She’s using these tools to learn what visual information kids with ASD are attending to and how their brains respond to social information.
“I think the thing that really makes my lab unique is that we are looking at both neuroscience and intervention at the same time,” says Faja. “We take information from the neuroscience literature about how the brain develops, and we look for ways to apply that to developing new treatments.”
Thomas is feeding virtual bananas to virtual monkeys. If the banana is yellow, he presses the computer’s arrow key to feed it to the monkey. If it’s brown, he’s supposed to just wait for the next banana. “Good job, you really watched carefully,” says Susan Faja, PhD, who’s coaching him through the task.
In the next round, Thomas has to throw bananas in the trash—but only the brown ones. “Oops, I threw a good banana away!” Thomas exclaims. “No worries,” Faja reassures him, “let’s try and remember the new rule on the next one.”
Being able to inhibit impulses—even small ones—is one aspect of what’s called executive function, a set of cognitive skills that allow us to manage complex or conflicting information, solve more nuanced problems and fine-tune our behavior. Executive function also includes the ability to plan, hold information in mind, and shift flexibly between different rules in different situations. And Faja thinks that strengthening executive function could help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) function better socially. …