Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette's campus. Learn more through the links below.
Other autism research at Marquette Dr. Norah Johnson, assistant professor of nursing, is developing interventions to decrease challenging behaviors and anxiety in children with autism during health care encounters. She is testing an iPad application to see if preparing families in advance can reduce parent and child anxiety and speed up procedure time during X-rays. Dr. Abir Bekhet, assistant professor of nursing, studies the effects of positive cognitions, resourcefulness, and resilience in overcoming stress and adversity in vulnerable populations. Bekhet, with funding from the American Psychiatric Nurses Foundation, is working with Johnson to examine how nurses can help promote the health and functioning of caregivers of those with autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Robert Scheidt, associate professor of biomedical engineering, studies motor control in children with autism. His lab’s overall focus is on how the brain uses sensory information to guide learning of movements with the body. “Autistic children are an important population to study because these children often have sensory deficits as well as motor coordination deficits, and yet little is known of the etiology of these deficits or their learning deficits in general,” he says. Doctoral student Nicole Salowitz examined visuospatial processing differences between children with autism and a control group, thought to be a significant contributor to autistic children’s movement problems. Wendy Krueger, clinical instructor with the Marquette University Speech and Hearing Clinic, is incorporating music into speech-language therapy sessions with young children with autism to see if it leads to a significant increase in skills. An early pilot showed that music can be used to calm or energize a child and keep him or her focused on therapy. “Perhaps most exciting, however, has been the increased engagement, awareness of others and verbal output that we have seen when clinicians communicate with the child via singing rather than speaking,” Krueger says. But PEERS isn’t just about improving a teen’s social life. Numerous studies have shown the detrimental effect social isolation can have on physical and mental health, including increasing one’s risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. “Having at least one good relationship — it’s quality, not quantity — is protective. And these kids who are isolated — if we don’t ameliorate that, they’re just continuing on a path of negative outcomes. The areas of the brain that respond to social stimulation may atrophy, and once they atrophy, there’s not a lot we can do,” she says. Marquette’s program targets students 11–16 because Wisconsin only provides intensive intervention until age 11, though the program will expand to autistic young adults this fall. “We’re really trying to fill a gap in the community,” says Van Hecke. But puberty is also a critical intervention point because preadolescent brains are especially plastic, making it the perfect time to forge new pathways. For an hour and a half each week, the teens meet with a trained facilitator while their parents meet separately. PEERS breaks down the social instincts that many take for granted. For example, to break into a circle of people talking, you first eavesdrop to find a natural opening, then wait for a pause before interjecting. If the circle doesn’t let you in, you feign an excuse and slip away. “We all know what to do when things get awkward. But kids with autism don’t,” she says. “So we teach them how to get out of a situation and keep their cool.” Another session focuses on cliques and crowds so that teens can figure out which group they might fit in with best. And there’s homework, too: Make a phone call. Invite a classmate to hang out. Parents are assigned to help their kids find a new extracurricular that could give them a fresh social platform. One of the post-program measures is how often the teens are invited out by others. Data from UCLA’s program, which has been around longer, shows that the program’s influence lasts even three and five years later. “It’s like we’re teaching these kids to fish socially … once they get that kick, that boost, they’re on a different path,” Van Hecke says. For the Sansones, PEERS was worth the four-hour round-trip drive every week, even if Nick’s progress is slow but steady. “He definitely puts himself out there more. He hasn’t made any great friends yet, but he’s building a nice base of acquaintances,” Michael Sansone says of his son. “He likes school for the first time in years, so that’s a big step, and we’re confident friends will come in time.”² Marquette University 5