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Other autism research at Marquette Dr. Norah Johnson, assistant professor of nursing, is developing

because these children often have sensory deficits as well as motor

interventions to decrease challenging behaviors and anxiety in children

coordination deficits, and yet little is known of the etiology of these

with autism during health care encounters. She is testing an iPad

deficits or their learning deficits in general,” he says. Doctoral student

application to see if preparing families in advance can reduce parent and

Nicole Salowitz examined visuospatial processing differences between

child anxiety and speed up procedure time during X-rays.

children with autism and a control group, thought to be a significant

Dr. Abir Bekhet, assistant professor of nursing, studies the effects

contributor to autistic children’s movement problems.

of positive cognitions, resourcefulness, and resilience in overcoming

Wendy Krueger, clinical instructor with the Marquette University

stress and adversity in vulnerable populations. Bekhet, with funding from

Speech and Hearing Clinic, is incorporating music into speech-language

the American Psychiatric Nurses Foundation, is working with Johnson to

therapy sessions with young children with autism to see if it leads to a

examine how nurses can help promote the health and functioning of

significant increase in skills. An early pilot showed that music can be

caregivers of those with autism spectrum disorders.

used to calm or energize a child and keep him or her focused on therapy.

Dr. Robert Scheidt, associate professor of biomedical engineering,

“Perhaps most exciting, however, has been the increased engagement,

studies motor control in children with autism. His lab’s overall focus is on

awareness of others and verbal output that we have seen when

how the brain uses sensory information to guide learning of movements

clinicians communicate with the child via singing rather than speaking,”

with the body. “Autistic children are an important population to study

Krueger says.

But PEERS isn’t just about improving a teen’s social life. Numerous studies have

especially plastic, making it the perfect time to forge new pathways.

One of the post-program measures is how often the teens are invited out by

shown the detrimental effect social

For an hour and a half each week, the

isolation can have on physical and

teens meet with a trained facilitator while

has been around longer, shows that the

mental health, including increasing one’s

their parents meet separately. PEERS

program’s influence lasts even three and

risk of depression, anxiety and suicide.

breaks down the social instincts that

five years later.

“Having at least one good relationship

many take for granted. For example, to

others. Data from UCLA’s program, which

“It’s like we’re teaching these kids to

— it’s quality, not quantity — is protec-

break into a circle of people talking, you

fish socially … once they get that kick,

tive. And these kids who are isolated

first eavesdrop to find a natural opening,

that boost, they’re on a different path,”

— if we don’t ameliorate that, they’re

then wait for a pause before interjecting.

Van Hecke says.

just continuing on a path of negative

If the circle doesn’t let you in, you feign

outcomes. The areas of the brain that

an excuse and slip away.

respond to social stimulation may atrophy,

“We all know what to do when things

and once they atrophy, there’s not a lot

get awkward. But kids with autism don’t,”

we can do,” she says.

she says. “So we teach them how to get

Marquette’s program targets students 11–16 because Wisconsin only provides

out of a situation and keep their cool.” Another session focuses on cliques

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

intensive intervention until age 11, though

and crowds so that teens can figure

acquaintances,” Michael Sansone says of

the program will expand to autistic young

out which group they might fit in with

his son. “He likes school for the first time

adults this fall.

best. And there’s homework, too: Make

in years, so that’s a big step, and we’re

a phone call. Invite a classmate to hang

confident friends will come in time.”²

“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

out. Parents are assigned to help their kids find a new extracurricular that could give them a fresh social platform. Marquette University

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