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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