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Students who participate show external and some drive for hours to attend measures of progress, including more the weekly sessions. friends and get-togethers and improved Van Hecke first became interested social skills that help them navigate in autistic brain activity while studying the tricky social waters of middle and the neurological and physiological high school. responses in children with autism to But Van Hecke is the first to examine whether the PEERS intervention changes kids’ brains. And, indeed, it does. Using people they know and people they don’t know. “Much of the research is ‘They electroencephalography to compare don’t do this, and they don’t do that, teens’ brain activity before and after the and they lack this.’ And what I’ve 14-week program, she has seen signifi- seen is that children with autism will cant changes in the parietal-temporal do much more with someone who is lobe, which is related to social behaviors, familiar to them,” she says. “It’s when we becomes increasingly isolated. About half and in the frontal lobe, the “executive,” bring this unfamiliar tester in the room of autistic kids have average or high IQs, decision-making part of the brain. that they shut down.” and it’s only their social interactions that “Even though autism is considered a brain-based disorder, no intervention to Amy Van Hecke Sure enough, she found that autistic children had the same neurological reveal that anything’s wrong, she says. “You’ll say, ‘Oh, Johnny is interested date, anywhere, for any age group, has responses as children without autism in video games, and you’re interested ever looked at dynamic change in the when reading a story with their care- in video games. What could you do if autistic brain due to intervention,” Van giver — but their heart rate sped up in you hung out together?’ And they’ll have Hecke says. the presence of the nonparent. “So really no idea. You have to make that leap the heart of autism is a mobilization or for them,” she says. “The shy kid will do has never been more important. a flight or fight response to unfamiliar still know what to do, but the action is “Autism rates are increasing at an expo- people. It’s not all people,” she says. impaired. In autism, it’s both the knowing The focus on what autistic kids can nential rate. We went from 1 in 10,000 But that fear of others can cause and the action. They may want to make in the 1980s, and now we’re down to problems as the child enters school and friends, but they don’t understand how.” 1 in 110. The rate of increase is alarming, and the autism research community Figure 1: Pre-intervention alpha EEG activity in is very focused on understanding why. participants with autism. Red indicates more activity, However, it’s also crucial to help people white indicates moderate to low activity and blue shading indicates even lower activity. Activity shown is with autism lead satisfying lives now,” in the alpha frequency band, which is inverse to overall Van Hecke says. brain activity. This image depicts low activity in temporal-parietal areas responsible for social Marquette’s PEERS program started information processing. in fall 2010, and 35 students have gone through it so far. Though Van Hecke is still gathering more data — using kids on Figure 2: Post-intervention alpha EEG activity. Figure 1 Figure 2 information processing. group — she plans to present her early Figure 3: Pre-intervention gamma EEG activity. Activity findings at the International Meeting for shown is in the gamma frequency band. This image depicts low-moderate activity in frontal areas responsible Autism Research in Toronto in May. for social decision-making. With funding from the Autism Society Figure 4: Post-intervention gamma EEG activity. This of Southeast Wisconsin, Marquette is image shows increased neural activity in frontal areas able to offer PEERS to families for free. Pennsylvania have asked to participate, 4 Discover activity. This image shows increased neural activity in temporal-parietal areas responsible for social the program’s waiting list as the control Families from as far as Montana and White shading shows a decrease in alpha band responsible for social decision-making. Figure 3 Figure 4

Discover 2012

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