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
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