Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven - in partnership with Haskins Laboratories - is conducting a study on the communication skills of children with autism. Many kids with this developmental disabilitiy avoid eye contact. So, researchers are trying to determine how this contributes to speech and language problems.
"The study recently started. We're a couple of months in," says Julia Irwin, Associate Professor of Psychology and lead investigator of the federally funded study, called Listening to Faces. "We have gotten a number of volunteers and we are looking for more."
For the study, researchers need 100 participants, ages 6 to 12.
"We're looking at how children, particularly with autism, but also those with speech problems and with no developmental difficulties, understand what's heard by looking at someone's face. So, essentially we're looking at the interaction between a speaker's face and voice," says Irwin, who believes this approach is unique. Traditionally, researchers look at auditory perception rather than the visual component.
Say you are in a noisy environment - at a sports game or in a crowded restaurant - and are having trouble hearing your companion. "Those of us who are expert speakers and listeners can repair by looking at a face but this is particularly hard for kids with disabilities," explains Irwin.
Children watch vidoes while wearing an EEG cap with a non-invasive set of electrodes. "In using that, we can measure underlying brain activity. We can specifically ask whether kids hear the difference between different sounds and whether the face affects that. So, you don't have to ask a kid, 'Did you hear that?' Their brain tells us - passively - whether they heard it or not," explains Irwin.
Irwin believes results will yield important interventions for kids on the spectrum. A Listening to Faces iPad app has already been created. Children in the study take the tablet home to participate in a therapeutic training game. They watch people talk as background noise is increased.
In addition to her role at Southern, Irwin is a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, affiliated with Yale and UCONN, and the director of it's LEARN Center, dedicated to early detection of language problems in kids. She is also the mom of two teenagers.
Irwin, who has been working with kids with autism and language problems for a decade, is excited about the study and the positive effect it could have on families. "The first thing that's so important is this understanding of whether kids on the spectrum can integrate a face and voice. This has been something that people disagree about. We need to know this. And we need to know who is particularly at risk for language failure which I think we might learn from this," she says.
The $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health involves student training. "So, I have something like 15 students in my lab who are learning how to work with kids with disabilities, learning how to do research. I hope they'll go on to be scientists in the future and clinicians, also helping kids."
Typical children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or speech problems are eligible to apply.
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